Charleston: Another mass shooting, another fight over gun control

The church shooting in Charleston, S.C., this week raises questions about gun violence in America and how to control it. Given political realities and public opinion, it seems unlikely that new laws will result.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Jermaine Jenkins sets out a sign and some flowers in front of the Emanuel AME Church Friday in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, is accused of killing nine people during a Wednesday night Bible study at the church.

As with so many other times in recent years, Wednesday night’s mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., has stirred the debate over gun control. Still, given political realities and public opinion, it seems unlikely that new laws regulating gun ownership will result.

To some pro-gun types, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, who was killed Wednesday night along with eight other parishioners at a Bible study and prayer meeting, bears major responsibility for the tragedy. Mr. Pinckney was also a state senator, and he had voted against legislation that would have allowed gun owners to bring firearms into public places, including churches. 

On his website, gun advocate John Lott writes: “Not surprising that yet another mass public shooting has taken place where guns were banned. Yet, again, the ban only ensured that the victims were vulnerable…. With the exception of just two cases, all the mass public shootings since at least 1950 have occurred where guns are banned. This tragic case is no different.”

Elsewhere online, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton wrote, “Eight of [Pinckney’s] church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

In other words, according to this line of argument, one answer to preventing such tragedies is more guns, carried by law-abiding citizens armed and ready to intervene. The NRA and others also argue that the issue in most mass shootings is not stricter gun control but addressing mental health issues.

Gun control advocates have a different point of view.

“The facts of this tragedy remain under investigation, and there is still a lot that we don’t know,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. “What we know is that every day, 88 lives are lost in shootings across our nation. Most of these tragedies are preventable through sensible solutions that just keep guns out of the wrong hands: solutions like expanding Brady background checks on all gun sales, and shutting down the small number of ‘bad apple’ gun dealers that supply almost all crime guns.”

In the Charleston case, many facts remain to be determined.

What’s known so far: Alleged shooter Dylann Roof acted alone, authorities say. Mr. Roof bought his .45 caliber handgun himself legally from a Charleston gun shop. (It was not a birthday gift from his father, as initially reported, although birthday money may have been involved.) Roof has been described by friends and family as introverted and with few friends. He had been heard making racist statements, but had no obvious mental or emotional impairments that – even in hindsight – would have alerted others to developing danger.

Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. He has reportedly admitted responsibility for the shootings, telling authorities that he meant to start a race war.

In his first public statement following the church massacre in Charleston, President Obama expressed frustration over the politics of gun control.

“Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun,” he said. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”

“I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now,” Obama continued. “But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said. “Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times.” (“By my count, this will be at least the 14th time Pres Obama has made a statement on a shooting attack,” CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted.)

With Republican control of the US House and Senate (and many Democrats wary of this hot-button issue as well) it was always going to be difficult to pass stricter gun control legislation. Public opinion has been moving in the opposite direction as well.

Gallup finds that 63 percent of Americans “believe having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be” – a figure that’s nearly doubled since 2000. At the same time, Gallup finds, “Less than half of Americans, 47 percent, say they favor stricter laws covering the sale of firearms.” In 2000, 62 percent wanted stricter gun laws, a figure that has dropped steadily since then, briefly spiking to 58 percent following the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

“This suggests that while shootings may still occur with disturbing regularity in the US, there is a disconnect between those events and support for making gun laws stricter,” Gallup’s Art Swift wrote last October.

Most analysis after Charleston takes the same line.

“The chances of action on Capitol Hill remain effectively nil,” The Hill newspaper reported Friday. “Congress has failed to substantively act on every front in the wake of mass shootings, including efforts to increase treatment for mental health. That, too, seems unlikely to change.”

"Congress is becoming complicit,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut told the newspaper.

“What’s offensive to me is that it's not that we’ve only given up on changing the gun laws; we’ve also given up on trying to address the needs of law enforcement or our broken mental health system,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut, another gun control advocate. 

Writing in the Washington Post, political blogger Chris Cillizza says of Obama’s statement, “This is the most powerful politician in the country acknowledging that he has little to no ability to effect a change he quite clearly believes needs to happen.”

Obama’s anger over yet another tragic shooting, writes Cillizza, has “smoldered into resignation – a feeling that even someone elected in large part on his ability to bridge unbridgeable gaps can't institute the changes he feels necessary.”

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