Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday they will push for "sensible" gun safety laws that the public is demanding after a series of mass shootings in recent years.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the panel's chairman, said he was disappointed that President Donald Trump did not mention gun violence in his State of the Union address, but said Democrats would focus on ways to reduce gun violence.
"For far too long, Republicans in Congress have offered moments of silence instead of action in the wake of gun tragedies. That era is over," Nadler said as the panel convened a hearing that advocates say was its first wide-ranging attempt to strengthen gun-control laws in at least eight years.
After shootings in Florida and Texas, Congress boosted school safety funds last year and improved compliance with the federal gun purchase background check system. But lawmakers did not pursue major legislation sought by gun-control advocates.
In 2017, under Republican controI, the House approved a bill making it easier for gun owners to legally carry concealed weapons across state lines. The measure, a top priority of the National Rifle Association, failed in the Senate.
Democrats have promised swift action to tighten gun laws after the party regained the House majority following eight years of Republican rule. Proposals include expanded background checks for sales and transfers of firearms, restrictions on high-capacity magazines and a measure to allow temporary removal of guns from people deemed an imminent risk to themselves or others.
"It is evident from the energy and the crowd in this room, as well as the millions of people across the country fighting for sensible gun safety laws, that the public is demanding national legislation," Nadler said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the bill on background checks a common-sense measure and cited polls showing 97 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun sales.
While gun-control measures are likely to win approval in the Democratic-controlled House, they face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate and in the White House, where Trump has vowed to "protect the Second Amendment."
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said expanded background checks would not have prevented recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, or Charleston, South Carolina, or similar tragedies.
He called the background-checks measure a "fraud" that promises protection against gun violence without achieving it. If Congress wants to write new laws to prevent violence, "we should, at a minimum, commit to enforcing the laws we already have," Collins said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said the background-checks bill was based on a false premise. "Depending on criminals and madmen to obey gun laws is delusional," he said.
Republicans also complained that the bill was the first step toward a national firearms registry.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo conceded that the background-checks bill would not solve gun violence, but said it would prevent at least one death — and likely many more.
"Is a little inconvenience too much to save one life?" Acevedo asked.
Republicans also complained that Democrats blocked House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., a survivor of gun violence, from testifying. Scalise accused Democrats of trying to "silence conservative voices."
The hearing grew tense as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said building Trump's proposed border wall with Mexico would be more effective at preventing crime than expanded background checks. Gaetz got into an argument with Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed in the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting. Gaetz asked for Oliver to be ejected, but Nadler refused.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., accused Gaetz of "making things up," while Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., said she was "sick and tired" of Republicans talking about gun owners' rights.
"I can't help but think of the rights of the victims who died at the hands of someone with a gun who should never have had a gun in the first place," said Demings, a former Orlando police chief. Trump and other Republicans talk about a national emergency at the southern border, "Well doggone it, when vast numbers of people die in this country (from gun violence) I would consider that a national emergency," she said.
Addressing lawmakers from both parties, she said: "History will not be kind to us if we continue to allow the gun lobby to buy us and sell us. Now is the time for change. If you don't have the guts or the courage to do something about this issue then it's time for you to leave" Congress.