WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, exactly one month after Nikolas Cruz fatally shot 17 people at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard voted along with 406 members of Congress on a bill to increase security at schools and curb the violence.
It was a national day of protest for students across the country, many of whom left the classroom to march in support of better gun control.
And while the measure Gabbard voted for Wednesday didn’t address guns specifically, that didn’t stop the congresswoman from seizing on the moment.
She urged her colleagues to take on reform measures, such as universal background checks and closing the gun show and online loopholes that allow purchases to go unchecked.
“These are provisions that have overwhelming bipartisan support both here in Congress and across the country,” Gabbard said. “The time for action is long overdue. Let’s bring these bills to the floor for a vote.”
The image Gabbard projected was one of a strong gun control advocate, a person who wasn’t afraid to stand up to one of the most well-organized political lobbies in the U.S. — the National Rifle Association.
So it was surprising when Amber Tamblyn, a Hollywood actress who has become a leading voice in the Time’s Up movement, called out the congresswoman on Twitter for not signing on to an assault weapons ban supported by most of her Democratic colleagues and for taking campaign money from gun interests.
Tamblyn said the money — a pittance in political dollars — “went a long way.”
She then threw her support behind Sherry Campagna, who is running against Gabbard in this year’s Democratic primary.
Out of the 160+ Dems calling for bans on assault weapons (HR5087), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, who is running for re-election, did not.
Seems like that $500 she took from the @NRA went a long way.
— Amber Tamblyn (@ambertamblyn) February 28, 2018
On Feb. 26, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, of Rhode Island, introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018 in response to the Parkland shooting. The bill had 164 original co-sponsors, all of them Democrats, including Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who is running for governor.
Gabbard was not among the group, which included nearly 85 percent of all Democrats in the House. Congressional records show she added her name to the bill March 1, the day after Tamblyn’s public chiding went out to her nearly 100,000 followers.
Tamblyn’s Twitter attack was off in one respect — Gabbard gets no money from the gun lobby.
Her Honolulu campaign did accept $400 from the Hawaii Rifle Association’s political arm in 2010 when she ran for the City Council. But she’s never received political donations from the NRA while in Congress and boasts of receiving an “F” rating from the group on her campaign website.
Gabbard’s campaign also has pointed out that it donated more than twice that amount to a GoFundMe campaign to help students in Hawaii send a 2-mile-long ti leaf lei to those affected by the Florida shooting.
Gun control seems like it would be a signature issue for someone like Gabbard, who’s often held up as an ideal progressive. But she’s also known to buck the party line, which has left her open to criticism from some on the left who don’t always trust her motivations.
When it comes to guns, there are some who question where she stands. And after Parkland, there’s a lot more scrutiny on lawmakers and their records on gun control.
Nathan Gonzales, of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political analysis publication in Washington, said that most of the attention has been on who’s getting money from the NRA. But he said that what bills a lawmaker backs or supports can matter just as much, especially if someone decides to point it out.
“On the one hand you want everyone to look at someone’s record in totality, but sometimes individual moments or votes become symbols,” Gonzales said. “The Democratic Party has been divided on this issue for generations. But there is a growing appetite within the party to do something and to take action to prevent gun violence.”
The congresswoman’s gun record is complicated. But the one person who could explain it — Gabbard — isn’t talking.
The congresswoman has mostly avoided discussing the topic in detail with the media. She often issues press releases that include broad statements about her policy stances or takes to social media to speak directly to her supporters.
Civil Beat has tried for nearly two weeks to get an interview with Gabbard to better understand her views and motivations.
We reached out to both her campaign and official House spokesperson. We dropped by her Washington office and tried to catch her in the capitol hallways between votes. We even texted and called her cell phone. Still, we were told she was unavailable.
Gabbard’s gun record could easily be described as sporadic.
While Gabbard now seems to be saying all the right things for someone in her position — that she supports universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole and banning military-style assault weapons — it hasn’t always been reflected in her actions.
She’s been slow to sign on to a number of gun control measures that have received widespread support among her Democratic Party colleagues. Sometimes she’s just a no-show.
That was the case in 2015 when Cicilline first introduced his assault weapons ban. The bill had 149 cosponsors, including late Hawaii Rep. Mark Takai, who, like Gabbard, served in the Hawaii Army National Guard. Gabbard never added her name to the bill.
(Takai, who was in Congress in 2015, signed on to the ban in June 2016 along with 23 of his Democratic colleagues after 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.)
Co-sponsorship is just one way politicians can back up their beliefs and public pronouncements, even if the legislation they support is dead on arrival.
But Gabbard’s voting record on guns also doesn’t provide much clarity.
In December, she and Hawaii’s other representative, Colleen Hanabusa, voted against a measure that would effectively broaden the right to carry a concealed weapon. If someone was allowed to carry a concealed weapon in their home state they would be allowed to cross borders and carry their gun in any state.
The House ultimately passed the bill 231 to 198, largely along party lines.
Last March, however, Hawaii’s representatives split their votes on a gun rights bill for veterans. The NRA-backed bill would have essentially blocked the Department of Veterans Affairs from notifying the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that a veteran was mentally incompetent after determining they are unable to manage their own finances.
In recent days, following an incident in California in which an Army vet killed three mental health workers and himself after he had been kicked out of a treatment program for combat stress, that measure has come under attack by gun-control advocates, including the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Like a lot of what Tulsi does, I sometimes find her actions inexplicable,” said Colin Moore, associate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He said Gabbard’s gun record doesn’t have any discernable pattern.
Moore said the NRA doesn’t hold much sway in a Democrat-controlled state like Hawaii so Gabbard doesn’t have to satisfy a conservative base the same way Democrats in other parts of the country might.
But given her general reputation as a progressive, Moore said, Gabbard might be trying to signal to Republicans that she’s more centrist on certain issues, such as gun control. If they believe that it might make them more likely to work with her on other legislation.
There’s also the possibility, he added, that she’s contemplating running for national office.
“Those are my best guesses, but I don’t have a good explanation,” Moore said. “Tulsi makes policy choices that are hard to explain.”
Over the years, Gabbard signed on to legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of suspected terrorists and other individuals on the “no-fly list” as well as measures to improve the functionality of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
She also signed on to a resolution to force a hearing every time the House held a moment of silence for victims of gun violence.
More recently, she co-sponsored legislation that would outlaw bump stocks and other devices that could increase the firing rate of a semi-automatic weapon and close a domestic violence loophole that could have prevented the shooter who killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, from getting a gun.
Bump stocks were used by the gunman who opened fire on a crowd of concert goers in Las Vegas in October 2017. Fifty-eight people were killed. Hundreds were injured.
But she’s also been criticized by political opponents for which measures she decides to co-sponsor and when.
In 2016, Gabbard’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Shay Chan Hodges, blasted the congresswoman for not signing on to a number of high-profile bills that many of her left-leaning colleagues had supported, including Cicilline’s 2015 assault weapons ban.
Other bills Hodges pointed out included those that would have tightened loopholes for gun show operators and made it harder for high-risk individuals with certain criminal histories, including stalking, from obtaining a gun or ammunition.
“The truth was I had assumed she was decent on gun control, and why wouldn’t she be?” Chan Hodges said. “There are certain things that are very much Hawaii Democrat kinds of things. When you’re talking about reproductive rights, gun violence and LGBT stuff there’s really not much room for argument within the community.”
Within days of Chan Hodges’ attacks, Gabbard added her name to a handful of gun control bills she previously hadn’t signed on to, including one called the “Support Assault Firearms Elimination and Reduction for our Streets Act.”
Contrary to its name, the bill — which was first introduced in 2013 and again in 2015 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — wasn’t an assault weapons ban.
It was a voluntary “buyback” program that would have given $2,000 tax credits to individuals who decided to give up their assault weapons to law enforcement.
The 36-year-old Gabbard doesn’t always follow Democratic Party norms, which has put her at odds with some of her peers while at the same time endearing her to those on the right.
The congresswoman also has a military background, having served in Iraq as a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, and veterans issues seem to be at the forefront of her considerations.
Joseph Blocher is a law professor at Duke University, who specializes in constitutional law and, in particular, the First and Second Amendments.
He said that while he believes mass shootings take up a disproportionate amount of the debate — at least when compared to the overall numbers of people who are killed by guns each year — he sees a change in the tone of the discussion.
It’s no longer just the NRA and its supporters who are writing letters to lawmakers, making phone calls and marching in public to defend rights.
Victims and their advocates are starting to speak up and get organized through groups such as Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety.
“Guns rights groups have been much better organized and much more engaged over the years, and I think people often attribute that to the NRA having more money than anyone else,” Blocher said. “But the key to its power isn’t the money so much as it is the commitment and organization of its members.”
The violence prevention groups are starting to catch up, he said, which could lead to a “rebalancing.”
“The energy that we’re seeing from young people has been remarkable and if it has staying power it could really be a potential game changer,” Blocher said.
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