WASHINGTON (AP) — The son of Ruth Whitfield, an 86-year-old woman killed when a gunman opened fire in a racist attack on black shoppers in Buffalo, New York, challenged Congress on Tuesday to act against the “cancer of white supremacy” and the national epidemic of gun violence.
Garnell Whitfield Jr’s moving testimony comes as lawmakers are working hard to strike a bipartisan deal on gun safety measures following back-to-back mass shootings. Ten days after the death of his mother and 9 others in New York, another 18-year-old gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 school children and two teachers.
“What are you doing? You were elected to protect us,” Whitfield Jr. told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Is there nothing you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism it inspires?” He asked. “If there is nothing then, respectfully, senators…you should cede your positions of authority and influence to others who are prepared to lead on this issue.”
The hearing is the first of two this week as families of victims and survivors of the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde appear at public hearings and events on Capitol Hill to show the human toll of gun violence on United States and urge Congress to act.
Pressing for a deal, President Joe Biden was meeting on Tuesday with Senator Chris Murphy, a key Democratic negotiator, who has worked most of his career trying to curb the scourge of mass shootings in the country after the heartbreaking massacre of 20 children in Sandy Hook Elementary in his home state of Connecticut ten years ago.
“Enough,” Biden said last week in a televised address calling on Congress to act.
On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee is expected to hear from other families of victims and fourth-grade student Miah Cerrillo, who came to American attention after she described covering herself in the blood of her dead classmate. and playing dead to survive the shooting in Uvalde.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing focused directly on the white supremacist ideology that authorities say led an 18-year-old gunman dressed in military gear to drive for hours through a predominantly black neighborhood in Buffalo and to broadcast his violent outburst live. The shooting left 10 dead and several injured.
“My mother’s life mattered,” Whitfield said. “Your actions here will tell us if and how much it meant to you.”
The senators met privately in a small, bipartisan group led by Murphy and Republican Sen. John Cornyn, trying to hammer out a compromise that could actually become law.
But lawmakers have been here before — unable to pass substantive gun safety laws for decades in the face of strenuous objections from Republicans in Congress, some conservative Democrats and the fierce lobby of gun owners and of the National Rifle Association. No major legislation has been enacted since the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which has since expired.
The package under discussion falls far short of the sweeping steps for an assault weapons ban or universal background checks that are popular with Americans and advocated by gun safety groups, but rejected by Republicans.
Instead, senators are focused on incremental policy changes through a system that would send funds and other incentives to states to make school campuses safer, provide more mental health services to young people and possibly encourage states to pursue red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who could do harm.
“I’m optimistic we can get over 60 votes — but the question is what does this package look like,” Cornyn told reporters as lawmakers returned to town on Monday after a week-long vacation.
Cornyn was referring to the 60-vote threshold needed in the 50-50 Senate to advance legislation past a filibuster who can block most bills.
The Texas senator said he was preparing to update his colleagues on Tuesday, during their weekly Senate luncheon, on the status of the negotiations. But he warned Democrats not to rush the process, saying “arbitrary deadlines” don’t help the talks.
As senators balk at raising the age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21, as has been done in some states, an alternative idea that is surfacing is to open records for juvenile offenders. to find trouble spots before allowing adults to buy guns.
Murphy said Cornyn has expressed a legitimate concern that law enforcement often does not have access to minors’ records when making a decision on a background check.
“It definitely seems like something we should fix and fix,” Murphy said. “It is certainly part of our discussions. It’s complicated because different states have different rules when it comes to juvenile records.
The proposals are gaining traction, but also raising concerns among Democrats and some advocacy groups that are pushing senators to do more, faster, to stem the tide of mass shootings across the country.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.