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A shooting back home: Congress reacts to another tragedy

A shooting back home: Congress reacts to another tragedy
People enter the Rudy C. Hernandez Community Center where families were reunited after the deadly shooting in San Bernardino. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rep. Pete Aguilar was leaving the House floor after the first votes of the day in the U.S. Capitol at 2 p.m. when his staff broke the news: There was an active shooter in his district. He never made it back for the next series of votes.

"My heart aches that the out-of-control gun violence epidemic has come to our community," the Democratic congressman wrote on Twitter at 2:45 p.m. before boarding a plane home to California.

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By the time he landed, officials had reported that at least 14 were dead and 17 more were wounded in the shooting at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center. Two suspects were dead.

At the U.S. Capitol, Democratic members of California's delegation vacillated between anger and frustration that Congress hasn't implemented background checks and other safety protocols to reduce the number of mass shootings. Some Republicans pointed to legislation that would make it harder for people with mental illness to get guns or said the federal government isn't doing enough to enforce the laws already on the books.

Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Pomona), who represented the San Bernardino area in the state Senate, learned about the shooting when her son called her. He reached her as she left the House floor.

"That was hard; very, very hard," she said. I was "just imagining the worst."

Multiple televisions in Torres' office were turned on high volume to live coverage on MSNBC.

Torres spent much of the day calling people in the district. Among her calls was to connect a Washington-based intern with her parents in Fontana.

"I told Assemblymember Cheryl Brown, 'I wish I could just reach over and hug you and know that you are OK,'" Torres said. "That's what is so hard, being so far away from home."

Her district office in Ontario remained open, with heightened security, throughout the day so someone could be present to answer worried constituents' phone calls. She plans to fly home Thursday after the final votes of the week.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) said the news brought her back to May 2014, when she learned of the shooting in Isla Vista, in her district.

"When it happens in your own community, you really are changed. It rocks you to the core," she said. "The tragedy of it. It forever changes a community."

She said fellow members would embrace Aguilar and that community in the coming days. Dozens of lawmakers have found their districts the scenes of mass shootings.

"We become a family when this happens. Unfortunately there is a history here, it doesn't affect just one member," Capps said. "There's a lot of sympathy and reaching out now, but that needs to be sustained."

Some members had bleary eyes and were visibly emotional, biting a lip and taking a deep breath before proceeding with their interviews.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said the House has held so many moments of silence for the victims of mass shootings — the most recent one on Tuesday, recognizing three people killed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — that the moments have become bitter because they aren't followed by action.

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"We'll do a moment of silence next week when Congressman Aguilar comes back from his district, but that's about it," Becerra said. "There's this emptiness to it. It's got this hollow sense."

House Speaker Paul Ryan asked those gathered for the lighting of the National Christmas tree to pause for a moment of silence.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), chairman of the House's Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said mass shootings are happening too frequently.

"Congress was silent after Sandy Hook, Congress was silent after Aurora, Congress was silent after South Carolina," Thompson said. "Congress has been derelict in its duty. It's shameful and it's cowardice."

Several Republicans said too little was known to offer comment.

"We have to wait, no reason to jump to any conclusions yet, we need to figure out what's going on," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). "Let's just wait and let law enforcement figure it out."

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) put his focus on mental illness, even as little information was known about the shooters. "What's evident is that we've had a rash of killings by people who have had severe mental problems, who should not have been able to get access to weapons and we need to address this," he said Wednesday evening.

Other Republicans questioned the need for more gun control, even as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused Congress of "a debilitating fear of upsetting the gun lobby."

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) said he watched the news coverage from the House cloakroom between votes.

"It seems it could happen anywhere, and it takes more individual vigilance to have people be ready for this stuff happening, because obviously even with the cops only four or five minutes away, even that didn't prevent this kind of stuff," LaMalfa said.

He said that until the federal government better enforces the laws Congress has already passed, he's not sure more are needed.

"When background checks are already in place and somebody that shouldn't be buying a gun is red-flagged in that, but nobody follows up?" he said. "I haven't seen where more legislation is going to solve anything until the Department of Justice and others do their job of prosecuting the ones we have."

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) urged Congress to act.

"Lives are on the line, and with each passing day of Congressional inaction, another child, mother or father is at risk of being killed. Our constituents have a right to feel safe in their schools, places of worship and community centers," she said.

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

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

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