Politics

How things change when there is a mass shooting in your legislative district

When news broke of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) knew he’d call Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), stepping into an uncomfortably familiar role of counseling a member of Congress whose district just went through a tragedy.

Murphy, who represented the Newtown, Conn., area in the House before becoming a senator, has done it before. He and other members of the worst club in Washington band together to embrace members and their communities after a shooting.

The Democrat describes those calls as a “private, consoling conversation.” He promises the lawmaker that his or her community will be supported.

“I feel a very personal obligation,” he said. “There’s an awful network of us that have been through these shootings.”

Aguilar said that after the attacks, he heard from other lawmakers who had gone through similar experiences. They advised him to whom to talk. They told him what briefings he should request. They told him how he could help San Bernardino heal.

“There isn’t a rulebook on this,” Aguilar said. “We lost a little bit of our innocence as a region. You think that this happens in other areas, and you can’t ever say that [it happens elsewhere] anymore.”

Aguilar, who has advocated for more gun control since he was mayor of Redlands before his election to the 31st congressional district, said the shootings didn’t change his policy views. They strengthened his resolve.

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“I can’t stand silent. We need to stop bowing our heads, and we need to start raising our voices to call for this change,” Aguilar said.

While members might grieve together and console one another privately, more than a dozen mass shootings in the years since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting haven’t spurred congressional action. Just a handful of the 225 firearms-related bills filed in 2015 were considered by the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

After the San Bernardino shooting on Dec. 2, debate on Capitol Hill turned to the FBI’s terrorism watch-list. Should people on it be able to legally purchase a gun? That wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular massacre, but Democrats repeatedly tried to force a House vote on the measure. Those efforts failed.

Congress’ inaction prompted President Barack Obama to move forward with executive actions of his own.

It isn’t often that a shooting changes a politician’s stance on gun policy, according to Cal State Sacramento professor emeritus William Vizzard, the author of several papers and s book on U.S. gun policy. “What seems to happen in these shootings is they seem to harden someone’s position one way or another,” he said. 

Murphy said while he cared about gun violence, he didn’t spent a lot of time focused on laws addressing it during his six years in the House. Weeks before he was sworn into the Senate, however, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders and six adults. Nothing was ever the same.

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“The arc of my legislative career changed the day of Sandy Hook,” he said. “I’ve never been so psychologically connected to an issue.”

Now a frequent and vocal advocate on gun-control issues, Murphy since has sponsored bipartisan legislation proposing to limit access to weapons for some people with mental health issues.

Last month, when the familiar reports surfaced, Murphy took to Twitter.

“Oh god. Not again. #SanBernardino,” he wrote. He followed it with, "Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again."

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) has watched members react to their own tragedies for nearly 20 years since two students walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and injuring 24 more before killing themselves in her district.

“Every time there is another shooting, it’s almost like PTSD,” she said. “It’s a club that we wish didn’t exist in Congress.”

More than a dozen of the 55 members of California’s delegation have a shooting statistics at home: either having had a mass shooting in their district, representing a constituent killed in a mass shooting or having been personally affected by a shooting.

For Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), any bad news brings her back to May 11, 2014, when a man shot and killed six people and wounded seven in the Isla Vista neighborhood near UC Santa Barbara.

“It takes you to the exact moment the events unfolded in my community,” Capps said. “It rocks you to the core.”

That day, Veronika Weiss was killed. The 19-year-old student was one of Rep. Julia Brownley’s (D-Westlake Village) constituents.

Her father, Bob Weiss, of Thousand Oaks, has since become a gun-control advocate. He brought a small container with some of his daughter’s ashes when visiting Brownley on Capitol Hill last fall.

“He came into my office and said, ‘Hold onto her,’ ” Brownley said. “So, I felt like I could hold onto her a little bit, but you can’t make it right.”

Brownley says Weiss’ death has stuck with her, and the community.

“That loss — just like someone in your own family — that loss remains forever. They are in your heart and your prayers and in your thoughts,” she said. “It’s a permanent loss.”

But when Cherie Lash Rhoades shot and killed four people and wounded two others at an Indian tribal headquarters in Alturas in 2014, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) didn't get a large outpouring from his congressional colleagues.

“For [Aguilar], that was super high-profile, and there was a lot of elements to that that really made it right in everybody’s face,” LaMalfa said.

He said the San Bernardino shooting solidified his view that current laws need to be fixed and new limits aren’t needed.

“No amount of new gun-control laws is going to take away the holes that are already in current law not being enforced,” he said. “My constituents want no part of any new gun control, and this is a belief system I’ve had.”

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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