The congressman stood in the well of the House chamber, expectant colleagues knowing what was coming from the man whose district two weeks before had been hit by a terrorist attack.
Declaring that his fellow Californians behind him were “San Bernardino united,” Rep. Pete Aguilar asked for prayers and a moment of silence to reflect on the 14 people killed and 22 wounded in the Dec. 2 massacre.
For 20 seconds, you could hear nothing but breathing coming from the House chamber. A few tourists watched from the gallery. A slideshow began in his mind.
“The faces. The faces of those who lost their lives, and those who are going to be dealing with this for a long, long time. Not just the 14, not just the 22 survivors. There are people who were in that room who are going to be dealing with this tragedy for a long time,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It was a blur.”
Then, the gavel struck, ending the eleventh moment of silence held this year for gun violence victims and House members returned to the business of the day.
The Democrat from Redlands asked members to pray for the victims’ families and for a quick recovery for the injured, for the first responders and for the resiliency of San Bernardino.
“We have said loudly as one community that this tragedy will not define us and it will not divide us. We will not be afraid to come together in fellowship, to work together, to mourn together or to rebuild together. Across faith and across culture, we will support one another in this time of need,” he said.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) patted Aguilar on the back, Reps. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) and Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) chatted with Aguilar near the lectern, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) flexed her bicep as if to demonstrate strength and Reps. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles) and Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk) gave him hugs.
Aguilar said he was grateful members from both parties stood with him at the front of the chamber.
“They were there to put their hand on my shoulder and to stand with me,” he said. “There were a lot of us who had constituents affected.”
It was an emotional moment for everyone, lawmakers shared later. During the silence, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) reflected on his 13-year-old son’s concerns: are California and the country safe? Rep. Mark Takano’s (D-Riverside) thoughts lingered on the two victims from his district. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said a prayer.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who said after the shooting she would no longer stand for moments of silence until Congress passes gun violence legislation, was not there. An aide said Speier left the chamber and instead wrote letters to families left reeling by the tragedy.
After Wednesday’s moment of silence, House Speaker Paul Ryan offered his condolences, Aguilar said.
Even though the attack happened in Aguilar’s district, some of the victims lived in the surrounding areas. Other California members have begun publicly paying respects.
On Tuesday, Sanchez spoke on the House floor about Tin Nguyen, 31, of Santa Ana, who had been a health inspector.
“Let us honor the memory of this extraordinary young woman, who had so much to give, but whose life was tragically cut short by unspeakable violence,” she said.
Takano took to the House floor Tuesday to share about the lives of two constituents who died, Sierra Clayborn, 27, of Moreno Valley, an environmental health specialist, and Damien Meins, 58, of Riverside, who worked with the Health Department.
Aguilar returned to Washington this week to vote on the government spending bill Congress needs to pass to keep the federal government open. Votes on that measure are expected by the end of the week, and Aguilar said he’s glad he will be able to return to the district soon.
Later Wednesday, Aguilar and dozens of House members introduced a bill to renew the 1994 ban on assault-style weapons that expired more than a decade ago. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the bill has little chance of moving forward, but Aguilar said it should at least be talked about.
“As a former mayor and obviously someone that’s gone through the last two weeks I think I deserve an opportunity to be heard on it,” he said.
House Democratic leaders assured Aguilar his place was home in the district rather than in Washington, and for the past two weeks, the first-term congressman has been attending vigils, memorials and briefings in the town he grew up in.
Aguilar learned about the shooting as he left a House vote on Dec. 2. After confirming with local law enforcement, he headed to the airport.
“It was a very lonely flight back home,” Aguilar said. “This is very personal for me. It’s been tough to talk with friends and neighbors, to try to comfort the survivors and the victims’ family members. It’s been brutal. I thought I was doing OK up until the funerals.”
He assured victims at local hospitals that the community would support them. He donated blood, met with first responders and hospital employees and talked with local and federal law enforcement.
All the while, dozens of congressmen from both sides of the aisle reached out through calls, emails and text messages, Aguilar said.
“Everybody starts with the same premise, we’re thinking of you and our thoughts go out to the community,” he said. “Many of them just want to know how I’m doing. That means a lot.”
A few hours after Aguilar’s remarks, the White House announced President Obama will travel to San Bernardino on Friday to pay tribute to the victims.
“I’ve conveyed to the White House the importance of the president’s presence in our region as we rebuild, and I join with our community in welcoming him to San Bernardino,” Aguilar said in a statement.
5:50 p.m.: This article was updated with new details and context.
This article was originally published at 10:52 a.m.
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