Connecting state and local government leaders
City and county leaders who have had to deal with the tragic aftermath of a mass shooting are looking to federal lawmakers to address the crisis.
Erie County, New York Executive Mark Poloncarz arrived at a Buffalo supermarket an hour after a gunman shot 10 people to death in a racist massacre last month.
He stood in the parking lot while inside the store, investigators dealt with the aftermath of bodies ripped apart by a semi-automatic weapon. He witnessed the anguish of family members who could not bury their loved ones in an open casket.
“It was horrible,’’ the Democratic official said. “What people need to understand is that these are weapons designed for warfare. That when paired with the ammunition that the shooter in Buffalo had, it just didn’t strike individuals, it caused massive injuries.”
Poloncarz has a message for members of Congress and other federal government officials with the power to enact gun control legislation: Do something.
“It’s a sad day when weapons … whose sole purpose is to kill as many people in as short a time as possible, are still available on the open market because Congress can’t pass legislation to ban them,” Poloncarz said. “If [members of Congress] had been on site and had seen what that white supremacist did to those 10 beautiful people, maybe they'd feel differently.”
Poloncarz is part of a grim fellowship of local leaders who have had to deal with the tragic aftermath of a mass shooting. From overseeing logistics such as notifying grieving family members and setting up accounts for donations to dealing with the media and providing comfort to their shaken communities, municipal and county officials are leading the response to America’s gun violence crisis.
Several of those leaders say they are growing increasingly exasperated by the lack of federal action on gun control.
“I’m an optimist but I am frustrated that under these circumstances, we can’t reach some common ground, especially in the Senate, which is split 50-50," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat.
He recalled receiving a 3 a.m. phone call in June 2016, alerting him that a gunman had shot and killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
“After every shooting, there’s a call for common sense gun laws,’’ Dyer said. “We’ve seen this proliferation of shootings in the last six months and even the most ardent Second Amendment person has to think that there's something we need to do about that.”
Two years after the Pulse attack, 17 people were killed and many others wounded in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed a “red flag law,’’ which allows a judge to temporarily bar a person deemed a danger to themselves or others from possessing or purchasing a gun. It was implemented in 2020.
Florida also passed a prohibition that generally prevents anyone under 21 from buying firearms and instituted a three-day waiting period between the purchase and delivery of a gun.
“Those [policies] are not outrageously liberal ... or violating anybody’s Second Amendment rights,’’ Dyer said. “Those are things you would think everybody could agree to."
Some Republican city leaders also have expressed the need for greater gun control. After the Uvalde shootings, Mattie Parker, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, called for "serious" and "bold" measures to address gun violence. "Let's not overcomplicate things,'' she said in a statement. "In Texas, you must be 21 years old to buy alcohol or tobacco and also to purchase a handgun. Yet an 18-year-old can purchase an assault rifle. Does this make sense? Absolutely not."
'It Can Happen in Any Community'
Dyer spent last weekend in Reno, Nevada at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting. He participated in a panel discussion with other city leaders on the sad rituals that follow mass shootings. “It can happen in any community,’’ he said.
And it has.
The horror of gun violence has touched dozens of cities and towns in recent weeks: There have been 35 mass shootings in the U.S. since 19 children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection group that tracks gun deaths. (Mass shootings are defined as an incident in which four or more victims are shot.)
Last week, the mayors' group reiterated its call for Congress to pass gun control legislation. It reissued a letter, initially sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, in August 2019, after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, asking lawmakers to bolster background check requirements.
Several states have enacted stricter gun laws since the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. On Monday, New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed bills approved by the legislature last week in response to the Buffalo supermarket attacks. The measures raise the age to buy a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21, ban the sale of body armor such as that worn by the Buffalo gunman and strengthen the state’s red flag law.
Legislators in other states, including New Jersey, California and Delaware, which all are liberal leaning and have Democratic governors, are also weighing stricter gun laws.
But Republicans in Congress have thwarted all attempts to pass national gun control legislation since Sandy Hook. "I believe our nation is ready and will support [gun control] legislation,'' Poloncarz said. "I just don't know truthfully if the Republican party is ready to do that."
Sens. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, are working to find common ground on gun control. Murphy, in an interview Monday on Meet the Press Now, predicted they will succeed. “We will pass something that is broadly popular,’’ he said, “more popular now than ever before in the wake of Uvalde, in the wake of the shootings last weekend. There is a popular uprising in this country to do something.”
Poloncarz, the Erie County executive, said he certainly hopes so.
“I’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity as county executive: Covid 19, blizzards, other natural disasters,’’ said Poloncarz, who is in his third term in office. “Nothing compares to the pain and hurt and tragedy of a mass shooting like this. I would not wish this on any other community.’’
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty.
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