Democrats’ focus on the racist replacement theory, which casts minorities as an existential threat to white people, signals a shift in how they respond to gun violence. While previous mass shootings have prompted calls for votes to put most Republicans on record for opposing gun legislation, Democrats are now trying to make Republicans answer for the discriminatory arguments that the Buffalo shooter allegedly backed in a diatribe he wrote before attacking a grocery store.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) set the tone on Monday. While Schumer said focusing on the shooter’s rhetoric is no substitute for enhanced background checks for gun purchases, he made clear that the most urgent response needs to be to “oppose the old poisons of racism and white supremacy that have been with us far too long.”
And he made no bones about tying his efforts to the Donald Trump-era Republican Party, calling for every influential voice in America to “band together to stomp views like replacement theory out of existence.”
“These hard-right MAGA Republicans argue that people of color and minority communities are somehow posing a threat to the American way of life. This is replacement theory in a nutshell,” Schumer said.
Trump faced multiple allegations of racist rhetoric during his four years in office, asking minority congresswomen to “go back” where they came from, attacking a “Mexican” federal judge who was born in the United States and singling out “very fine people on both sides” after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Carlson has used his Fox News show to repeatedly invoke replacement theory-style rhetoric, including saying in 2021 the Democratic Party is “trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the third world.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also took to the Senate floor to castigate Carlson as a “leading ideologue in the white supremacist movement.” Durbin said that, in his capacity as Judiciary Committee chair, he would soon hold a hearing on domestic terrorism and hoped that the Senate could ultimately pass legislation addressing it.
In an interview, Durbin said that at this point he’s not sure about whether the Senate needs to hold a vote on legislation to expand background checks that would fail to win the necessary GOP votes to overcome a filibuster: “I know the outcome.”
Instead he turned his attention to Carlson for “peddling these racist theories like replacement theory … he should be ashamed of himself and the politicians who support him should be as well.”
Not everyone in the Democratic Party was willing to go as far as Schumer and Durbin. Asked about calling out Republicans and Fox News over replacement theory, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said: “Yeah. I’m not going to go down that road. We’ll let them do that.”
And Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) defended his previous effort at expanding background checks but declined to weigh in on Schumer’s speech, saying simply that “we need a good bill” to restrict people with mental illness from obtaining guns.
Republicans strongly rejected the idea that their party’s rhetoric contributed to the shooting this weekend. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said Schumer’s remarks were “a vile attempt to use a tragedy to score political points, it sounds like to me,” while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the Democratic leader’s speech “sick.”
“You had at the same time in California a Chinese immigrant targeting Taiwanese people. Who are we supposed to blame for that one?” Rubio said. “No one is promoting a theory of going in and shooting up a place. I don’t know anyone who’s called for that. And frankly, they turn everything into a political weapon.”
The shooting at the Buffalo supermarket left 10 people dead and injured three, all but two of whom were Black. And it wasn’t the only shooting to get nationwide attention over the weekend. In Milwaukee, at least 21 people were wounded in mass shootings, and one person was killed and five injured when a gunman opened fire at a church in Laguna Woods, Calif. — the attack Rubio referred to.
Some in Schumer’s caucus sprang to his defense, pointing to past comments by sitting GOP lawmakers that portrayed illegal immigration as an invasion of America. That rhetoric drew criticism from the left, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), that the GOP was skirting too close to replacement theory.
“We have seen a mainstreaming of … explicitly racist philosophy,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said of Schumer’s remarks on Monday. “The third-ranking [House] Republican [Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York] is talking about it, she is running Facebook ads. So it’s not Schumer that’s elevating this. It’s Schumer that’s correctly observing what’s happening.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), however, said he “would be very careful about too broadly casting aspersions. Because not every Republican engages in that kind of talk. But many do.”
“It’s no secret there’s a really violent vicious underground [that] feeds off of this idea that immigrants, Black people and Jews are a threat to the nation,” Murphy said.
While the Senate passed legislation last year to combat hate crimes against Asian Americans, broader changes to address gun violence remain elusive. Despite bipartisan talks spearheaded by Murphy, there still aren’t 60 votes in the Senate to expand background checks. And even narrower legislation to help create creation of so-called “red flag” laws, which grant authorities the ability to limit someone’s access to a gun in the event of an imminent threat, isn’t moving.
Murphy argued that “we should put something on the floor that would have an impact and see where the votes are.”
“That could be a background checks bill,” Murphy said, adding that a terrorist watch list bill could also be an important response. “This guy might not have been on the terror watch list, but we have a lot of dangerous potential criminals on that watch list who shouldn’t be able to buy guns.”
But in a 50-50 Senate where Democrats couldn’t assemble majorities for either an abortion rights bill or gutting the filibuster for federal elections reform, some are wary about another failed vote on guns. Schatz put it frankly: “I don’t want to go through another cycle of pretending we can get 60 votes on this thing.”
And even if legislation proves impossible, Democrats have one option to help the Biden administration deal with gun violence that only requires 50 votes: the confirmation of Steve Dettelbach to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing on his nomination before the chamber leaves for the Memorial Day recess, Durbin said.
Biden withdrew his previous ATF nominee, David Chipman, amid opposition from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). The Senate has only ever confirmed one permanent ATF director.