Why Navy Yard shooting won't spur fresh look at gun laws

Gun debate foes traded barbs in the wake of Monday's mass shooting at Washington Navy Yard, but neither Congress nor President Obama seems to have the stomach right now for another fight over gun laws.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A police officer stands by a locked gate at the Washington Navy Yard, closed except to essential personnel, in Washington, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, the day after a gunman launched an attack inside the Washington Navy Yard on Monday.

One day after America’s latest mass shooting killed 12 and paralyzed a neighborhood near the US Capitol, talk on the street here is whether the tragedy will revive debate over expanding background checks for gun buyers and toughening gun controls generally.

The rampage in the Washington Navy Yard has spurred some to call anew for politicians to take the threat of gun violence seriously and to take meaningful action to curtail it.

"There's something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate," said MedStar Washington Hospital Center Chief Medical Officer Janis Orlowski as she updated reporters on the status of several shooting victims. "Let's get rid of this,” she added. “This is not America." 

But those who are weighing the political impact of Monday's shooting are doubtful that Dr. Orlowski and like-minded citizens will see much new congressional activity anytime soon.

President Obama and gun control advocates lost a legislative battle earlier this year to expand background checks for gun buyers, among other measures that had some bipartisan support. The families of many of the children lost in last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary shooting lobbied extensively for the reforms, and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun violence victim, and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, were also prominent in that fight. But the proposals died in the Senate amid intense resistance from gun rights advocates and the gun industry.

At the time, Mr. Obama, with those parents and Ms. Giffords by his side for a Rose Garden press conference, chastised lawmakers for playing politics around the issue and misrepresenting the proposals. Uncharacteristically emotional, he called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

“This effort is not over,” he said.

On Monday, in the wake of the massacre, the president called the shootings a “cowardly act.” But he made no firm pitch for more legislation, gave no fierce finger wag at lawmakers or the gun lobby. In the time since that April legislative loss, Obama has faced a string of political challenges that have weakened his already-tenuous sway over Congress: national security leaks and the latest international melee over how to handle Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons against its citizens, prime among them.

Even if he would like to press a restart button on the gun control conversation, he doesn’t appear to have the juice to make change at this juncture in his presidency.

It’s also not clear that the navy yard shooting has altered the Senate dynamics enough to support the case for renewed legislative negotiations over gun laws. The Washington Post reports that Obama and his allies “can’t point to a single new Senate supporter.” The paper’s headline also suggests that the “gun control debate has grown cold.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who sponsored the background check proposal that stalled earlier this year, won’t push for it again unless he can bring five new senators to his cause, Politico reports.

The Republican-led House would be even tougher to corral.

Nonetheless, even with a congressional battle unlikely, both sides lined up their usual arguments. Some conservatives reasserted their suggestion that the president and his Democratic friends want to take away the public’s guns. The Washington Times pounced when Obama said that, in Washington, the nation was facing “yet another mass shooting.” 

“The last mass shooting was over nine months ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown,” the paper wrote. “While we mourn every one of those children and educators lost that day – and today in Washington, D.C. – these events are not a cause for increased alarm.... Mass shootings are extremely rare and should not be described by the president as if they are a common occurrence. He does this to frighten people into believing that they are in more danger in order to get support for restricting Second Amendment rights." 

On the other side of the debate, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence tweeted: “Incidents like the #NavyYardShooting will continue to occur with regularity until legislators stop allowing the #NRA to write gun policy.”

Despite uncertainties around congressional interest in another protracted fight as well as the political vulnerabilities of an overextended Obama administration, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, a leading advocate of gun control legislation, pleaded Monday with her colleagues to stand up to the gun lobby once and for all.

“When will enough be enough?” Senator Feinstein asked. “Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country. We must do more to stop this endless loss of life.”

And those Newtown parents, still wounded from their own losses, are ready to hit the Hill circuit again to advocate reform. The navy yard shooting has provided them with a new urgency. Fifty members of the Newtown Action Alliance traveled to Washington Tuesday to renew calls for legislators to enact sweeping background checks for gun buyers.

"We're not gonna go away,” Carlos Soto, the brother of a teacher killed at Sandy Hook, told ABC News.

The players are girded for action, but a burdened president and weary lawmakers are unlikely to host another round of advocacy. Not imminently, anyway.

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