The first real test for the nation’s elected leaders after the Orlando massacre comes Monday, June 20, when the Senate takes up four amendments to the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill. In an election year where the presidential race is turning into a referendum on the very nature and ideals of America as a country, the vote is a symbolic clash between representatives of the powerful but unelected National Rifle Association lobby and the will of the people, the majority of whom support commonsense gun control measures—now a top LGBT issue.
According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, about 71 percent of Americans—including eight out of 10 Democrats and nearly six out of 10 Republicans—favor at least moderate regulations and restrictions on guns. That’s up from 60 percent in late 2014. Additionally, the apparently radical Islamic terrorist-inspired shootings by the young couple in San Bernardino last December and the wanton mass shooting of 102 people at the gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12 by Omar Mateen—who pledged support for ISIS to a 911 operator during his killing spree—have smacked the national consciousness as terrorist attacks on the homeland.
Congressman Adam Schiff, (D-28th)
“It does feel different this time. I didn’t think we’d need more than the tragedy in Sandy Hook to get Congress and the country motivated. But that was not enough, even with the death of all those beautiful children. But there really does seem to be just an enormous groundswell that we can feel reverberating through the Congress that the status quo is just not acceptable anymore,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, who represents the LGBT communities in West Hollywood and Los Angeles, in a phone interview Thursday. “I sincerely hope that this is a time now where we can actually get something done to curb this epidemic of gun violence.”
Though Orlando is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, there are more than 90 victims of gun killings nationwide each day. The LGBT community, in particular, has faced a surge in hate crimes and anti-LGBT efforts since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 in June 2013 and then granted marriage equality in 2015. In the first half of 2016 alone, nearly 200 anti-LGBT bills have been filed in 32 states. And according to a new study from The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), hate violence has risen sharply, with a 20-percent increase in reported LGBT homicides in the U.S. between 2014 and 2015. Of the homicides reported last year, 62 percent were LGBT people of color and 54 percent of all hate-violence related LGBT homicides were transgender women of color.
Now the LGBT community not only has fingers crossed over Monday’s vote—but LGBT groups and empathetic government and business entities have gone further, stepping up in response to the targeted mass shooting at Pulse of 49 mostly young gay Latinos and the wounding of 53 others. On Friday, both the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California announced they have made gun safety a top policy and political priority and joined a growing list of 70 LGBT and gun violence prevention groups under the hashtags #DisarmHate and #WeAreOrlando in calling on U.S. government leaders to address gun-violence prevention, including “more stringent checks to keep guns out of dangerous hands.”
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, however, cautions against expecting too much on Monday. “The reason you won’t see a compromise [on gun safety laws] anytime soon is because Congress is actually acting in the wake of Orlando would be a tacit admission on the other side that guns had something to do with what happened in Orlando as opposed to ISIS,” he said.
But this time may, in fact, be different as the country shockingly discovered that Mateen had been investigated by the FBI as a suspected terrorist and had been on the no fly list but was still able to purchase an assault rifle without a background check in Florida. A bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein to close the “terrorism gap” (supported by Equality California) is one of the bills up for vote on Monday. Dubbed the #NoFlyNoBuy bill, which has repeatedly been defeated by the NRA, it will compete with a measure proposed by Republican Sen. John Cornyn that would impose a 72 hour waiting period on gun sales to suspected terrorists while the attorney general seeks a court order to stop the sale. The bill would also enable the attorney general to delay the sale of a gun to anyone who had been the target of a terrorist investigation within the past five years.
The other two competing bills deal with background checks. The GOP-sponsored bill by Sen. Chuck Grassley would provide funding for the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) and encourage sharing of mental health and other records. Democrats support a bill by Sens. Chris Murphy, Chuck Schumer, Richard Blumenthal and Cory Booker to expand background checks for the sale and transfer of any gun, with some narrow exceptions. The bill also requires both states and federal agencies to make NICS data electronically available—though records sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives’ National Tracing Center languish in boxes under a dysfunctional, low-tech paper document management system.
A Gallup Poll released Friday, indicates 84 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 75 percent of Republicans back a ban on gun sales to people on the federal no-fly terrorist watch list. And though a ban on or restricting the sale of assault weapons is not up for a vote—something President Obama called for Saturday in his weekly address “Standing with Orlando”—Gallup says such a measure has support from 84 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 43 percent of Republicans.
“Every senator is now going to have to say, whether they’re for terrorists getting guns or against terrorists getting guns,” Schumer said of Monday’s vote. Schumer is expected to take over as Senate Democratic Minority Leader after Sen. Harry Reid’s retirement this year.
There are slight inklings that the NRA might be losing its stranglehold over Republicans. The first came when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to hold a floor vote after Murphy—who represents Newton, Connecticut, the site of the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School—said “enough” and staged an unplanned 15-hour filibuster to force a debate. McConnell, after all, famously said the Senate would not approve a nominee to the Supreme Court who didn’t pass NRA approval.
And while Democrats are using the issue of national security to win Republican votes, most view the mass murder at a gay nightclub as both a targeted terrorist attack on the LGBT community and a hate crime.
Schiff, a strong LGBT ally, participated in the Los Angeles Pride parade in West Hollywood on the same Sunday that news swept the world about the mass shooting in Orlando. And like the LGBT community, he paused, prayed and refused to submit to fear as the parade marched on.
“I’m not sure why this may be the tipping point,” Schiff said about the change of tune in Congress and the country over gun violence. “I don’t know whether the country has just reached a point where it can’t accept this anymore or the fact that it was a terrorist attack – although, frankly, often there’s been a recoiling against the idea that terrorist attacks have anything in common with other mass shootings. And of course the common denominator is the ready access to high-powered assault weapons with high capacity clips that make the killing a lot easier.”
But this time, said Schiff, “that barrier has broken down. And I think people realize that we can do everything humanly possible to prevent attacks, and some attacks are still going to happen. And the question is—can we do more to mitigate how lethal they are? And the answer is absolutely, yes.”
Except, Schiff said, during a private meeting of Democrats last Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took an assault weapon ban— pushed by out Rep. David Cicilline—off the table as part of a larger legislative strategy.
“It’s not that we’re not strong enough to make the fight. It’s just that we want to win the fight,” Pelosi told colleagues. “What we are trying to do — and forget the politics — what we are trying to do is save lives. What we are trying to do is to say that the Republicans will not even go to this place which overwhelmingly the American people support.”
Schiff said Pelosi put together a slew of congressional members with organizations very active on gun safety legislation, as well as representatives from several LGBT organizations.
“A big part of the discussion was how can we get all of the groups operating seamlessly together, not individual isolated efforts,” Schiff said, “but to try to put together a critical mass to take on the lobbying power of the NRA, the organizing power of the NRA, and ensure that something gets done this time. And I think if we can demonstrate that the NRA can be beaten on #NoFlyNoBuy and universal background checks, then that opens us up to the possibility of taking up the assault weapons ban.”
Schiff did the interview on Thursday, the same day the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee got the news that British parliamentarian Jo Cox, 41, had been shot and stabbed by a deranged man yelling “Britain first,” referring to a right-wing nationalist group with ties to white supremacist groups in America. Schiff said he sent an email to friends in Britain expressing sympathy. But the shooting on the other side of the Atlantic reverberated with the young family man on his way home for Father’s Day.
Politicians are public figures who might expect to receive some nasty criticism for controversial positions. But they are also human beings who have the choice of being guided by a moral compass and standing up for principle or playing the “important person” card and ducking out for safer surroundings if danger is in the air.
Schiff was still trying to digest the news about Orlando as he arrived in West Hollywood to participate in the parade. It was then that a sheriff’s deputy told him about the arrest of a man in Santa Monica whose car was filled with assault weapons, ammunition and chemicals to make a pipe bomb. The young man from Indiana told police he was on his way to the Pride parade, though he didn’t say anything else, such as offer a motive. Nonetheless, the news spread fast throughout the parade’s participants, with organizers briefly considering shutting it down for safety’s sake.
Schiff described it as an “awful moment” as he was trying to acclimate to the horrific news from Orlando and Santa Monica.
“It makes you think if those two incidents were completely unconnected—and they were—how at risk the LGBT community must feel when you have potentially two simultaneous tragedies on opposite sides of the country targeting the same community,” Schiff said. “Talking with members of the LGBT community about Orlando, I’m really struck by how these clubs are places for people to enjoy each other’s company, to feel safe—and now that feeling of safety has been taken away.”
As a congressmember cleared to receive regular top intelligence briefings, he was aware that law enforcement in the Los Angeles area had no credible intelligence that any terrorist event would occur during Gay Pride. But also they had no way of knowing about a possible “lone wolf” who might not have appeared on anyone’s radar. The young man from Indiana was found in his car by police called to the scene by a neighbor who was frightened by his banging on her window.
“It certainly did occur to me that some of the claims I’d heard that there was no reason to believe that there was any additional danger to the parade after the arrest of the individual in Santa Monica may have overstated the case a bit because we knew very little about the Santa Monica person who was arrested at that time,” Schiff said. “And we didn’t have enough time to do a thorough enough investigation about whether there might be any other parties that he might be conspiring with.”
“So there was certainly some risk,” Schiff continued. “But I completely concur with the decision that the parade organizers made to go forward because I thought it was a powerful statement in the wake of that tragedy in Orlando – that the community would not be intimidated into silence, that people would nonetheless head out to celebrate with each other, to show pride in each other, and demonstrate that they were not going to change their way of life because of this terrible act of terrorism and hatred.”
But it’s one thing for the LGBT community to show bravery and display a daring act of courage in marching and applauding the Pride Parade, knowing about Orlando and the Santa Monica arrest and not knowing if there was someone out there waiting. It’s quite another thing for a very important LGBT ally to consciously stay and participate, knowing the same information and perhaps harboring the same secret fear.
“I think there is a real feeling of solidarity,” Schiff said. “It’s something I felt when my colleague Gabby Giffords was shot during a constituent Congressman-on-your-corner— something we’ve done innumerable times. After that happened, we had a discussion, kind of a heart-to-heart in the office about whether we ought to reduce our public appearances or not do certain events. And I really did not want to have to acclimate to a new fear-filled environment where you feel inhibited from doing the things you really ought to be doing.
“I felt the same way during the parade—that we’re all in this together and we do not want to change our way of life,” Schiff said. “I felt the same solidarity with my friends in Britain after the shooting of the parliamentarian. It’s a global wound. And we have to stick together to fight this scourge of violence, what just seems like a breakout of mass insanity.”
One other point about the Senate vote on Monday. There is not a whole lot of time to get anything meaningful done on gun control this year without intense pressure on Republicans to distance themselves from the ideologically pure NRA. The Senate leaves for its month-long August recess on July 15, returning Sept. 6 for 9 weeks of work before adjourning Dec. 16 for the end of the year. The House also leaves July 15 and returns Sept. 6 but these representatives work only four weeks before adjourning for the entire month of October, returning Nov. 14 for only 16 days of work for the rest of the year, though Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy notes that the post-election calendar is subject to change.
By the way: a note about restrictions on the Second Amendment, per a survivalist who hawks guns at a gun show: “If you want to buy a bazooka, you can. Ammunition for a bazooka … not so much.” But you can buy both a bazooka and ammunition online—and the FBI is never notified. Which means a hater doesn’t even have to go into a gay nightclub to cause an extraordinary loss of life. And according to the NRA, that’s the hater’s constitutional right.