Politics

Congress’ Gun Massacre Caucus

Dealing with mass shootings is becoming all too familiar for many members

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, center left, with Rep. Mark Sanford to his right and then-Gov. Nikki Haley, second from right, attend a memorial service commemorating the anniversary of the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)

On Dec. 14, 2012, Elizabeth Esty was attending a social media workshop for new members of Congress at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She had been elected to represent Connecticut’s 5th District a month earlier.

“I raised my hand and I said, ‘Here’s an example right now — I’m getting texts and alerts that there’s been a shooting and we don’t know what happened,’” she said.

At first, it was thought that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in Esty’s district was over a child custody dispute. But as it became clear what had happened in the hour that followed, Esty’s husband, who worked for Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, called and said she needed to come home.

“I went to my hotel room, threw my stuff in the back of a car, drove back to Newtown,” she said.

Florida’s Val Demings, a retired police chief, was still campaigning for her House seat when a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year. Demings’ husband is still the sheriff for Orange County, which includes Orlando, and he received a phone call at 3 a.m.

“We’ve gone through it enough times when I was police chief — when the phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s probably not good news,” Demings said. “My husband and I thought that was just devastating.”

As the number of mass shootings piles up across the country, more members of Congress find themselves navigating something that’s not covered in freshman orientation. 

WATCH: In States Affected by Mass Shootings, Members Reflect on Moving Forward

The hours after: raw grief

Members whose districts have suffered a mass shooting said they dedicated most of their time in the immediate hours after to relief efforts: handing out snacks and water to volunteers, visiting victims in the hospital, attending news conferences with law enforcement.

Within hours of the Pulse shooting, hundreds of locals swarmed a blood bank in South Orlando to donate blood. Rep. Darren Soto, then a state senator, arrived with his wife, Amanda, to see the line out the door and wrapped around the parking lot. The couple distributed snacks and water and directed traffic. Soto herded crowds inside local businesses to escape the sweltering Florida heat as they waited to give blood.

Other lawmakers in similar circumstances made their first stops at hospitals that were taking in victims.

For many, seeing so much death and raw grief exacted a chilling emotional toll.

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 18: Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., comforts Carlos Soto, whose sister Victoria was a teacher killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, during an event in the Capitol Visitor Center to call on Congress to act on gun control legislation. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., appears at right. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Connecticut Rep. Elizabeth Esty comforts Carlos Soto, whose sister Victoria was a teacher killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, during an event in the Capitol Visitor Center in 2013. Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy is at right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Esty said one of the first places she stopped after the Newtown shooting was at the firehouse, where officials were breaking the news to families that their children had been killed. Twenty children and six adults were killed in the attack at Sandy Hook. Malloy was in the next room over, offering his condolences.

“You could hear parents screaming and crying,” Esty said. “I remember one mother saying, ‘[My daughter] was sick, she didn’t want to go. If I hadn’t made her go, she would be alive.’”

Just hours after the shooting in Las Vegas last month that killed 58 people and wounded more than 500, Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen followed fellow Democrat Pete Aguilar’s advice and went to Sunrise Hospital to visit victims and their families. Aguilar’s district includes San Bernardino, California, where a gun-wielding husband-and-wife team killed 14 people and wounded 21 in 2015.

The scene that greeted Kihuen was horrifying. The hospital had already taken in 190 patients — some dead or dying — by the time he got there. More gurneys of wounded people would stream in throughout the morning.

“I’ve never seen a war zone,” Kihuen said. “But if I could just imagine one, that is probably as close as it gets.”

Following their instincts

Lawmakers said the chaos that ensued after mass shootings in their districts forced them to respond to the situations as they unfolded. Following their instincts became important in handling the immediate aftermath.

Having not yet taken office, Esty hadn’t assembled a team and had no communications staffers or other aides to advise her on steps she should take.

“I had no staff. I was in this period where it was postelection,” she recalled. “We actually had no staff at all. I had no office. I was really thrown in the deep end.”

In the car on the way back to Newtown, she called her mother and her minister to talk things through.

In Las Vegas, Kihuen said his phone conversations with colleagues who’d been through this before — like Soto and Aguilar — guided him in the initial hours.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 1: Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., holds a news conference with Las Vegas shooting survivors and Nevada Democrats at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, to call on House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte to hold a hearing and examine the use and legality of “bump stocks.” (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen prepares to speak at a news conference Nov. 1 with Las Vegas shooting survivors and Nevada lawmakers including Rep. Dina Titus, second from right. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“Look, when you get elected to Congress, nobody gives you a manual saying, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do if a mass shooting happens in your district.’” Kihuen said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever fully prepared for something like that to happen in your city. But when it does — and it’s a similar situation in the ones we’ve seen in other places — then obviously you want to rely on some of your colleagues who have been through that.”

Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter has been through two mass shootings. At the time of the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, the area was a part of Perlmutter’s 7th District. And as a state senator in 1999, his district bordered the neighborhood where the Columbine High School shooting took place.

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Perlmutter compiled a three-page document to share his experiences and insight with other members. It covers things that one might not think about in times of chaos: how to work with first responders, best practices for outreach to families, how to handle the media, and reassigning staff member to the tasks at hand. It also includes information to make sure members are aware of the National Compassion Fund and other similar resources for constituents.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 23: Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., addresses demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol who gathered to show solidarity with House Democrats' sit-in on the floor calling on Republicans to allow votes on gun violence legislation, June 23, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who was a state senator at the time of the Columbine shooting and whose district previously included the site of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, put together a document on his experiences dealing with those tragedies to share with his colleagues. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Perlmutter often calls the member whose district has been affected by gun violence to share his insights. And then to follow up, he shares his document with them.

The document answers questions such as “How do you help communities deal with influx of charitable support?” Esty said. “How do you make sure money is accounted for? You also have to do that troubleshooting and give them help and guidance around setting up nonprofits. How do you set up scholarships?”

After the Las Vegas shooting, Soto reached out to Kihuen to exchange notes.

“He’s a fellow freshman, a Hispanic, someone I’m very close with,” Soto said. One of the things Soto told Kihuen was to forget about his duties in Washington until he’d taken care of things at home.

“Drop everything else. Even if there were votes up here, people in his community would need him,” Soto said.

Esty said she reached out to Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen after the Las Vegas shooting and Aguilar after the shooting in San Bernardino in 2015.

“How many new members had have these happen in their district?” Esty said.

South Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, who represents parts of Charleston, said he spoke with Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, whose district includes Sutherland Springs, where a shooter killed 26 people, including an unborn child, in a church on Nov. 5. Sanford said everyone goes through grief differently.

“What I’d say is they are very personal events, wrought with emotion and soul-searching and as a consequence, I wouldn’t want to presume to give other folks wisdom as to how they handle,” he said.

Balancing politics and humanity

When tragedies strike a lawmaker’s district or state, their phones come alive with calls and texts of support from colleagues. That outreach went a long way for many of the lawmakers Roll Call interviewed. The support transcended party lines.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, was struck by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s response to the shooting in Charleston where a white man entered an African Methodist Episcopal church and gunned down nine black prayer group members.

Tulsi Gabbard, who is a Democrat, I think Hindu, she and her husband came down to Charleston with [conservative Rep.] Trey Gowdy and worshipped with a group of Christians she had never met,” Scott said. “Different faith, mostly different race, different party affiliation.”

Republican Sen. James Lankford flew across the country from Oklahoma to sleep overnight at Scott’s house and attend funerals the next day.

“It’s hard to find the right words to express how meaningful and powerful those responses were,” Scott said.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 18 - Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., center, holds his face as he stands besides Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, left, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., during a prayer vigil for victims of the Charleston shooting, outside of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, June 18, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, center, wipes tears as he stands outside the Capitol beside, from left, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons during a prayer vigil for victims of the Charleston shooting. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Democratic and Republican responses usually begin to diverge a few days after mass shootings, when lawmakers issue more fleshed-out reactions to the violence. Most Democrats call for new gun control measures and safeguards. Most Republicans are equally emphatic against such moves.

When crafting their follow-up statements, lawmakers do not subscribe to party playbooks. Leadership does not dictate what members can say, when they can say it, or how strongly they can say it.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus stressed the importance of keeping conversations surrounding gun control alive after the initial shock has faded. The Las Vegas shooting took place in her district. 

“It’s just like after Sandy Hook, just like after Orlando,” she said one month after the massacre, alongside four survivors and other members of the Nevada delegation at the House Triangle. “A lot of talk. And then [Republicans] think they can wait us out. The news cycle will change, people will forget, and we’ll move on. We just can’t let that happen.”

In Las Vegas, Kihuen waited until the second day of the recovery to urge his colleagues to initiate debate on gun control measures.

“One thing I knew was on that day of the shooting, my sole focus was on making sure that our local law enforcement and first responders had all the [federal] resources that they needed,” he said. “That was my main responsibility.”

On the other hand, Demings, a Democratic primary candidate at the time of the Orlando shooting, made media appearances the same day of the massacre calling on Congress to act.

“It’s interesting to me when people say, ‘Well, we don’t want to politicize this issue,’” she said. “Every meaningful piece of legislation that has been passed historically was a result of some horrific incident.”

Soto criticized members who dodge for “weeks and months” after a mass shooting when asked about their positions on guns, saying it’s not the appropriate time.

“That rhetoric is a deliberate attempt to stop any reforms that may be needed to curb gun violence,” Soto said.

He said he thinks two to three days is an appropriate period for lawmakers to mourn with their constituents before focusing on policy.

But the circumstances are unique in each case, he added, and lawmakers should react how they see fit.

Healing continues for years

After the news crews have left the district and the renewed debate on gun legislation fades, the work of helping communities heal continues, often for years.

Soto said one of the challenges is working with the “long-term psychological and physical ailments and conditions” that follow mass shootings.

“Years out, we will still have people in counseling, family counseling and crisis relief counseling,” he said. “When the headlines start disappearing, when society moves on to the next crisis, it’s even more important for local leaders and their members of Congress to continue to do what they can to help out with the scars of such a tragedy.”

Esty said helping first responders deal with the trauma of seeing dead children at an elementary school was especially difficult.

“We are trained to protect our children,” she said. “There is a feeling of powerlessness and failure” when children die.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 18 - White roses are placed beside a sign that reads "We are Charleston" underneath a tree during a prayer vigil for victims of the Charleston shooting, outside of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, June 18, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
White roses planted around a sign that reads “We are Charleston” outside the Capitol to honor the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting in June 2015. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On the anniversary of the Charleston shooting, Scott and others in the South Carolina delegation invited survivors to the Capitol to reflect on the shooting.

For Esty, the mere fact that members of Congress now follow a routine protocol after a mass shooting is a tragedy in and of itself.

“I am heartsick that in the last month, I had to make calls to multiple colleagues,” she said.

Alex Gangitano contributed to this report.

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