Congress, state continue debate over guns

Rep. Brad Wenstrup and Richard Martinez are united in having survived the unspeakable. On what to do about it, they – and so much of America – are irreparably divided.

Wenstrup, an Army veteran and a Republican lawmaker from Cincinnati, was there on the June morning when Rep. Steve Scalise was shot by a stranger at a ballpark in Alexandria, Va. After the shooting stopped, Wenstrup, an Army surgeon who served in Iraq, ran to Scalise’s side and applied a tourniquet to squelch the bleeding. Last week, he cheered along with the rest of the chamber as Scalise finally returned.

Wenstrup credits police with keeping more people from being hurt.

Martinez was the father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, a 20-year-old whose life was cut short by a gunman at the University of California-Santa Barbara who killed six in May 2014. To him, each mass shooting is a stark reminder that nothing has happened to prevent another shooting like the one that abbreviated his funny and fiercely athletic boy’s life.

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Both men are similar in that they are survivors – in one way or another – of mass shootings. But Martinez now argues for gun control. Wenstrup is, like many in his part, a steady vote for gun rights, and credits the police response with keeping more from dying.

Both have become, unwittingly, part of the most tragic sort of American ceremony, repeated, numbingly, again and again.

First: The gunfire, devastating, in no particular order, a church group in South Carolina, an idyllic morning at a baseball field in suburban Washington, D.C., a gay nightclub in Florida, a Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.

Next, the routine: The body count on cable news climbing, sickeningly. The inevitable post-tragedy press conference. Tweets of thoughts, prayers and gratitude to first responders. Outrage from gun control groups, defensiveness from gun rights organizations who argue that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with one.

Then, it happens again.

While gun control groups point to a handful of measures that they see as progress – Rhode Island’s governor is expected to sign a bill this week that would bar convicted domestic abusers from owning a gun – gun rights groups have prevailed more recently in the Ohio Statehouse and the Capitol. The U.S. House of Representative plans to vote soon on a bill that would, among other things, reduce the current restrictions on purchasing silencers. Proponents say it will keep hunters from losing their hearing; opponents say it would make it harder for police to locate active shooters.

In the Ohio Statehouse, meanwhile, there are no fewer than six pending gun bills.

But every year there has been a new shooting. The 2016 Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub held the previous record of deaths in a modern U.S. mass shooting. Las Vegas broke that record.

Jim Irvine calls it “the definition of insanity.”

Irvine is the president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. He’s generally a proponent of fighting back, preferably with a gun. This case, he admits, is an anomaly: How can one fire back against a man shooting from the 32nd floor of a hotel? Why didn’t the hotel guests notify authorities?

To him, the reasons the gunman killed 58 and injured more than 500 aren’t all that important. What’s more important, he said, is that it happened, and that the next person who does this will try for an even higher body count. All we can do, he said, is be vigilant and prepared to fight back or save ourselves.

“We, as a society, better come to grips with this and better start working harder than they are to be more prepared,” he said.

Irvine said he does not believe the shooting could have been stopped by tougher laws or background checks. If the shooter was armed with a fully automatic weapon that was legally obtained, he would have undergone an extensive federal background check, Irvine said.

"If it was stolen or (illegally) made a full auto, or somehow came into his possession, why waste a moment on a background check? It didn't stop him," he added.

But Andrew Patrick, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said while it’s hard to know yet what laws might’ve stopped the shooting, it’s harder to watch the “steady drip” of gunshot victim after gunshot victim.

“What we saw today is going to keep happening until we start making changes,” he said.

Jennifer Thorne, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said action on gun violence is “long overdue.”

“The fact is that when rapid-fire kinds of weapons can be so easily obtained in this country, tragedies like this continue to happen,” she said.

For lawmakers such as Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, such news is something close to maddening. He sent out a statement offering thoughts and prayers, but added this: “The truth is, however, I am tired of offering up the same condolences again and again while Congress continues to sit on the sidelines rather than debate common-sense gun safety measures that could mitigate these all-too-common horrors.”

On Sunday night, Wenstrup watched a feature on 60 Minutes about the June 2017 shooting. The piece marked something of a turning point for him; finally, he said a bad situation had turned into a positive one. Scalise had recovered, to the relief and joy of Democrats and Republicans alike. They had turned a page.

And then Monday happened.

“We didn’t get to enjoy it very long,” he said.

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