The son of one of last month’s victims at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket shooting told Congress on Tuesday to prove his mother’s life mattered.
“Is there nothing that you personally are willing to do to stop the cancer of white supremacy and the domestic terrorism it inspires?” Garnell Whitfield Jr. said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “If there is nothing then, respectfully, senators, you should yield your positions of authority and influence to others that are willing to lead on this issue.”
“My mother’s life mattered. Your actions here will tell us if and how much it mattered to you.”
Whitfield’s 86-year-old mother, Ruth, was among the 10 Black people killed during a racist attack on May 14. The gunman, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, was a believer in “great replacement” conspiracy theory — a popular racist ideology among white supremacists that claims that white people are being systematically replaced by minorities — and drove 200 miles to target the Black neighborhood. At the time of her murder, Ruth Whitfield was picking up groceries for her husband, who lives in a care facility.
“Call it what it is — and not sweeping it under the rug and beating around the bush,” Whitfield said later in the hearing. “It’s white supremacy, it’s a problem, this young man, though he pulled the trigger, others loaded the gun, others fed him, others radicalized him. All of the things we’ve been talking about today contributed to his racist, evil behavior and until we start holding those entities accountable and calling them out, we’re not going to be able to do with anything.”
Anti-immigrant and racist conspiracy theories have inspired mass shootings in the past, including a 2018 attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that helped resettle refugees. Michael German, a former FBI undercover agent who now works at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he was troubled by prominent voices backing these conspiracies. Fox News star Tucker Carlson and some Republican politicians have echoed aspects of the great replacement theory.
“Having authority figures repeat these racist conspiracy theories is what’s different now from when I was working these cases in the [1990s],” German said.
“It’s important to make a distinction between people on the internet saying things that are troubling, people without any position of authority, and authority figures saying those same things. Because when an authority figure says that, somebody who has actual power, it presents a different opportunity to somebody who chooses to be violent,” German said, discussing both the Buffalo shooting and the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 last year from Donald Trump supporters who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen. “That they are no longer criminal, they are now part of a government faction that is encouraging them to commit this violence, so the calculus they have to make is much easier to make, which is why they think they could have amassed such a large amount of people that they could actually overwhelm the Capitol Police and assault our democracy.”
At a press conference following the hearing with a number of the Buffalo victims’ families, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was “befuddled” that every Republican voted down a domestic terrorism bill last month, filibustering the bill so that it could not come up for debate. Republicans argued that the bill, which would create domestic terrorism offices in federal law enforcement agencies, was not needed because existing laws already cover politically motivated violence.
“We all know that when racism is left to fester, it grows, plain and simple,” Schumer said. “We don’t really want ‘thoughts and prayers,’ we need votes, we need action to stop this despicable bigotry. We are going to vote on gun legislation in the future and we are going to bring this act up again and again and again in every way we can to make sure that America knows there are enough people who want to see righteousness done. I will just say we have a moral obligation to do what we’re doing here and to continue what we’re going to do.”
The renewed push for gun legislation — which followed the massacre in Buffalo, 21 people killed at a Texas elementary school two weeks later and 10 mass shootings over the weekend — also faces a difficult path in the Senate, where the filibuster sets a 60-vote threshold for action. Republicans have been very resistant to gun-related legislation after past shootings, although the Uvalde massacre has sparked new interest in more limited reforms.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the lead negotiator on the issue, said Monday that he wouldn’t support any legislation that banned assault weapons or increased background checks.
“Targeted reforms, I think, is the way to get to where we need to go,” Cornyn said in a speech to the Senate, adding, “We’re not talking about banning a category of weapons across the board, a ban for certain high-capacity magazines or changing the background check system by adding additional disqualifying items.”
“What I’m interested in is keeping guns out of the hands of those who, by current law, are not supposed to have them,” Cornyn continued. “People with mental health problems, people ... who have criminal records. Again, this is about the art of the possible.”
Unless Democrats unite to remove the filibuster, they will need at least 10 Republican votes to pass any gun legislation. (Key Senate Democrats say they oppose changing the filibuster rules.)
After the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, a bill to expand background checks failed despite receiving 54 votes. Some Democrats believe that this time will be different.
“I get it,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told ABC News in an interview at the end of last month. “Every single time, after one of these mass shootings, there's talks in Washington and they never succeed. But there are more Republicans interested in talking about finding a path forward this time than I have ever seen since Sandy Hook. And while, in the end, I may end up being heartbroken, I am at the table in a more significant way right now with Republicans and Democrats than ever before.
Other Senate veterans are more skeptical. Adam Jentleson, a former aide to Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, argued on Twitter that Democrats were deluding themselves with optimism.
“A good rule of thumb: In most negotiations, Democrats are so thirsty for that dopamine hit that comes with the first-round stories celebrating ‘bipartisan talks’ that they downplay, in their own minds, the likelihood that they’re being played,” he wrote.