Congressional Baseball Shooting Looms Large Over Gun-Silencer Hearing

While Steve Scalise has not been back to work since the June shooting, his party's gun-rights agenda seems to be back on track

A police officer stands guard in front of the U.S. Capitol building on June 14th, after the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

The shooting at a congressional baseball practice this summer, which left the number-three House Republican, Steve Scalise, in critical condition and four others injured, brought about some small changes in Washington, D.C. There are now a few more Capitol Police officers stationed at entrances on the Capitol grounds, and more of them standing watch at outdoor press conferences and when House members walk to the chamber to vote.

While Scalise is still undergoing intense rehab and has not been back to work since the June 14th shooting, his party's gun-rights agenda seems to be back on track. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, some Republicans pushed a proposal to allow lawmakers to circumvent local laws, including in D.C., to carry concealed weapons wherever they travel, but others in the party delayed the debate over contentious gun legislation until another day.

On Tuesday, that day came.

On the morning of June 14th, the House Natural Resources Committee canceled a scheduled hearing on sweeping legislation that would have allowed gun owners to transport assault weapons through states where they are banned, eliminate the ATF's ability to classify certain bullets as "armor piercing," make it easier to import assault rifles from foreign countries and – potentially most controversial – make it easier for gun owners to acquire silencers.

With the shooting now a distant memory for many in the public, House Republicans are now refocusing their efforts on getting that package, the "Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act," or SHARE Act, to the president's desk.  

On Tuesday, the Republicans got their long-awaited hearing on the proposal, and the shooting became a point of contention for many in the room. David Chipman, a 25-year veteran of the ATF who is now a policy advisor with Americans for Responsible Solutions – the gun-control group founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords after her shooting – told the committee it's misguided for the GOP to try to unwind restrictions on silencers that became law in the National Firearms Act of 1934. Those restrictions include a $200 tax on silencers, a lengthy registration process and a federal registry of silencer owners. Chipman told lawmakers mass shootings would only be harder to stop if criminals had silencers, pointing to the congressional shooting as exhibit A.

"Lives were spared that day because people recognized the unique sound of gunfire and were able to take cover," Chipman told the panel. "Now, Congress is promoting a bill that would make a situation like the one experienced in Alexandria potentially even more dangerous by putting silencers in the hands of criminals, and making it more difficult for people – including law enforcement officers – to identify the sound of gunshots and locate the active shooter."

Some Republicans pushed back on that point. New Mexico's Steve Pearce, who was at the shooting, said it wouldn't have made a difference had the shooter had a suppressor – as the NRA and other gun-rights groups likes to call them – that would have redirected the sounds of the gunfire.

"The first shot actually didn't sound like a gun shot at all – it sounded as if somebody had pushed a filing cabinet out of a truck," Pearce said in response to Chipman's testimony. "It was not the sound that allowed people to be safe, nor their ability to escape – it was actually the return fire. That's the only thing that saved probably 20 lives that day, maybe more."

Some Republicans on the panel are now accusing Chipman and other gun-control advocates of politicizing the June shooting.

"I think it is inexcusable for anybody to use what happened to our colleagues as an excuse for arguing for more gun control," Republican Rep. Liz Cheney tells Rolling Stone. "The idea that somehow it was hearing the gun shots – that it was an issue having to do with hearing – is just not right. It was a cheap shot and, frankly, something the witness shouldn't have done."

But others in the room, including about 20 gun-control advocates wearing bright red shirts, couldn't believe members of the GOP were piling on a former ATF agent who knows what silencers are meant to do: disperse the sound from weapons so there isn't as loud of a bang when the trigger is pulled.

"Appalling – absolute talking points from the NRA. We all know that's not the case," Sarah Dachos, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, tells Rolling Stone. "We do not do any civil disobedience with Moms Demand Action, but it took a lot of people sitting on their hands not to stand up or guffaw or something when those comments were made. They were just wrong."

Democrats see the effort on silencers as a money grab by the gun industry at a time when sales of traditional firearms are down.

"What happened today is the kowtowing to the NRA in terms of their agenda, to the gun manufacturers and their agenda, and now to what they hope is a new industry that expands: silencer manufacturers," Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters after the hearing.

About 1.3 million silencers are currently registered, but federal restrictions from the 1934 law make them difficult, if not impossible, to transfer to another party. That's why Chipman also testified that easing those restrictions on silencers would create a new, dangerous marketplace that the nation doesn't need.

"What you would find is immediately trafficking channels going to those states that chose today to actually ban silencers," he testified. "So you would now have trafficking in silencers, which we don't have today. It would be a new problem that would happen immediately driven just by the economies of: there would be a value, and they would be easily able to be resold for profit."

In the last Congress, Democrats held sit-ins on the House floor, and generally made gun-control an issue. While the debate trickled from the halls of the Capitol onto the campaign trail, the effort lost steam when Republicans swept the 2016 election. Now Democrats are largely locked out of the debate and are struggling to figure out how to change the narrative.

"I think across the board all of these attempts to weaken what are already really meager and inadequate gun violence regulations are just bad ideas," Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman tells Rolling Stone. "We have a real problem in this country and we're not talking about it. Certainly not under current management in the Congress. We should be having hearings about [the] gun violence epidemic. We should be listening to law enforcement. We should be listening to the victims of gun violence. There's been a different kind of silencing when it comes to this Congress and these issues."