Midtown Atlanta shooting highlights partisan divides on gun control

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said he will continue to push his colleagues to pass new gun control measures, especially after a deadly shooting in Midtown Atlanta left one woman dead, four others injured and Warnock’s two small children on lockdown.

“Thankfully, at the end of the day, they were safe — they are safe,” Warnock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “But in a real sense — in a real sense — none of us is safe.”

While Warnock and other Democrats are calling for new restrictions on gun ownership, such as requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, there has been little energy in Washington and Republican-leaning states to pass gun safety laws.

American conservatism is defined in part by strong support for the right to bear arms without governmental restrictions, and that is reflected by the lack of support among GOP lawmakers for gun control measures. Democrats in the Georgia Legislature introduced a host of gun control measures during the most recent session — as they do most years — but gained little traction in the GOP-controlled chambers.

Some elected officials on the right have said the answer lies with ending Democratic control in areas where crime issues persist and expanding access to guns, although crime has also risen since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the rural parts of Georgia that lean Republican. Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that made it legal for Georgia gun owners to carry a concealed firearm in public without a licenses.

Congress was able to reach bipartisan agreement on gun control measures last year after mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But Democrats even then said it fell far short of what they hoped to accomplish, such as a ban on assault-style rifles.

After every new high-profile gun incident, like Wednesday in Atlanta, Democrats renew calls for more to be done. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens penned an open letter Thursday to the city’s residents, suggesting a national response on mental health and access to firearms.

And he said during an afternoon press conference that he planned to have more conversations with local and national leaders as he pushed for measures such as “red flag” laws that allow a court or law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

But without Republicans’ support, especially in the U.S. Senate where 60 votes are needed to avoid the filibuster, the types of changes Democrats want to see are unlikely to occur.

In Georgia, most Republican elected officials responded to the shooting with statements that offered condolences to the victims and praise to first responders, while avoiding the gun control debate.

“We are heartbroken by today’s tragedy in Midtown Atlanta and join all Georgians in praying for those impacted and their loved ones,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday night. “We’re also thanking God for the brave local and state law enforcement who responded forcefully and without hesitation.”

That drew a rebuke from state Rep. James Beverly, the chamber’s top-ranking Democrat, who accused the governor of turning a blind eye to the problem.

“How many more people have to die before we do something about gun violence?” Beverly, of Macon, said in a statement of his own. “Kemp refuses to do anything about gun violence but prepares statements of condolences. Coward?”

While Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, U.S. Reps. Rich McCormick and Buddy Carter, and Attorney General Chris Carr also focused on praising the quick response from law enforcement and the medical community, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene took a more partisan position.

She released a statement Wednesday that blamed the Midtown shooting on what she described as failures of Democrats such as Dickens and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to lower the crime rate.

“Unfortunately, this is one of many murders that happen every single week in crime-ridden Atlanta,” the Rome Republican said in a statement. “The Democrat mayor and Democrat DA won’t do their job to protect the citizens in our state’s capital, so that means every hospital, business, and person should be protected with a firearm.”

Despite the partisan hurdles, Warnock said he will not be satisfied by continued silence.

He first started expressing concerns that Democrats were not talking enough about gun violence after high-profile mass shootings last month at a school in Nashville, Tennessee; a bank in Louisville, Kentucky; and a Sweet 16 birthday party in Alabama.

He raised the issue with Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, more than a week ago. That led to a meeting between the two on Wednesday. About an hour later, Warnock learned about the manhunt for the gunman in Midtown.

He said Thursday that Senate Democrats will hold a “family meeting” on May 11 where they will talk about next steps.

“There are things we need to get done, and I understand the difficulty,” Warnock said. “But we certainly can’t get anything done if we’re not even talking about it.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Liliana Bakhtiari said a “commonsense perspective” on gun legislation is needed but politics too often gets in the way.

“Human lives and protecting children and people should not be a partisan issue,” she said. “And this should not be a wedge issue for people to raise money off of at the cost of thousands of people being killed every year.”

Staff writer Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.