This time, little push for gun control after mass shooting

Lesley Clark

This time, it’s different.

After the December 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama launched a full-court press for gun control legislation. Lawmakers sought, though eventually failed, to reach a compromise to tighten background checks for firearms.

But a week after the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, despite calls from gun control advocates, lawmakers and Obama seem disinclined to launch another significant push.

The death of 12 at the Navy Yard has evoked some sympathy for revisiting the gun control debate on Capitol Hill, but it’s unlikely to go very far. And it’s unclear how much effort Obama will expend after failing to move Congress even after putting the force of his White House behind gun control efforts.

Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at State University of New York-Cortland who has written extensively on gun control, said that despite the loss of life in this latest mass shooting, the death of adults at the workplace doesn’t prompt the same visceral reaction as does the death of children in their school.

And he noted that the Newtown shooting – in which 20 children and six adults were killed – occurred at an opportune time, when gun control hadn’t been addressed at the national level in years, and just after Obama’s re-election, “when there weren’t other issues pressing him down, pulling attention away.”

Now, there’s been a bruising gun debate that didn’t succeed, and with Syria, Iran, the budget and the debt ceiling looming, Spitzer noted, “a pivot to guns isn’t in the cards.”

The White House has noted that it enacted the executive actions that were part of the Obama’s push for gun control, and Obama told the Congressional Black Caucus Saturday night that although he “came up short” on gun control, “that means we’ve got to get back up and go back at it.”

But addressing a memorial service for the Navy Yard victims on Sunday, Obama, even as he decried a “creeping resignation” that mass shootings are becoming the “new normal,” seemed unlikely to renew the pressure. He told the audience that he still believed there was a way to balance gun rights with reducing gun violence, but he noted, “By now it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington.”

On Capitol Hill, prospects for the passage of gun control remain dim, if not impossible. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a gun control supporter, expressed hope for moving legislation “as quickly as we can,” but he acknowledged he doesn’t have the votes.

“We’ve got to have the votes first. . . . I hope we get them, but we don’t have them now," Reid, D-Nev., told a news conference last week.

The Senate failed earlier this year to enact new background checks. While that proposal still seems to lack the 60 votes needed, Reid said it’s possible there could be movement on a narrower gun control measure, perhaps dealing with mental illness.

“I would be willing to do that,” he said. “Anything we can do to focus attention on the senseless killings that take place.”

The Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, legally bought a shotgun at a Virginia gun shop after a federal background check, and it’s unlikely the earlier legislation would have prevented him from obtaining a gun, though some lawmakers have pressed to include exclusions for mental illness.

A Gallup poll taken in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting found that 48 percent of Americans blame the mental health system “a great deal” for mass shootings – a finding Gallup says was unchanged from January 2011. At the same time, fewer blamed easy access to guns – 40 percent – than two years ago when 46 percent did, making the failure of the mental health system “the perceived top cause of mass shootings,” Gallup said.

The same poll of 1,023 adults found that fewer Americans today than after the Newtown elementary school shooting believe gun laws should be tightened. After that shooting, 58 percent backed stricter guns laws; the poll last week pegged support at 49 percent.

Lawmakers remain leery of government intervention. Gun owners and the National Rifle Association helped block Obama’s proposal last time. Two Colorado state senators who had embraced gun legislation earlier this month lost a recall election aided by the gun rights’ group.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., an architect of the unsuccessful push earlier this year, said Sunday he was unlikely to revive his plan to expand background checks to all commercial firearm sales.

“Not unless there’s a movement,” Manchin told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I’m not going to go out there and just beat the drum for the sake of beating the drum. There has to be people willing to move off the position they’ve taken. They’ve got to come to that conclusion themselves.”

Gun control advocates plan to keep pushing nonetheless.

“We hope Congress will listen to the voice of the people and take up legislation that will create a safer America,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau