A shooting spree in a secure military facility by a man apparently armed with a shotgun and a handgun leaves 13 people dead. The details of the crime suggest a problem to be fixed. But nearly every political consideration is stacked against any new legislation aimed at fixing it.
To be clear: There will be and are calls for new legislation. The New York Daily News, which launched an unexpected campaign for new gun laws in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre last December, appears to be poised to renew that call, if Tuesday's front page (right) is any indicator. (Though it now appears that an AR-15 wasn't the weapon used.) The Daily Beast's David Frum, who used Twitter to advocate for reform even as Monday's events were unfolding, wrote an article making the case for new legislation. "[B]etter mental-health provision would contribute to the reduction of gun massacres," Frum writes. "But America’s uniquely grisly record of gun death cannot be addressed without addressing guns."
Here's why that's not likely to happen in the wake of the Aaron Alexis shooting spree.
No new federal laws emerged after Newtown.
On Fox News Monday afternoon, veteran pundit Brit Hume put it plainly. "It’s hard to believe that, after what happened in Newtown — and nothing came of it in Congress — much on that issue is going to come of this." After the murder of 26 teachers and children at an elementary school shortly before Christmas, there was a strong push to reform the laws that allowed an emotionally disturbed young man access to a stockpile of ammunition and weaponry.
The president called for legislation; members of both chambers of Congress advocated for it. The Senate moved a number of reforms: background check expansion, more funding for school safety, increased penalties for trafficking in weapons. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called for new limits on semi-automatic rifles. Then, in large part due to pressure from the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America, the whole thing fell apart. A compromise that would have rolled back the proposed number of background checks failed to overcome a Republican filibuster, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tabled the whole package. The House never even considered any reform. The NRA dusted off its hands and moved on.
Hume's point was that Newtown was about the perfect scenario in which gun control measures might be passed. And nothing came of it.
New state control laws came at a high political price.
At the federal level, anyway. Various states passed laws addressing guns in the wake of the massacre. But the majority of states, reflecting the NRA argument that the solution to gun tragedies is arming more people, passed laws facilitating ownership and the ability to carry a weapon.
Several states, including heavily Democratic ones like New York and Connecticut, passed new control measures. As did Colorado, a state with a Democratic legislature that's a little further to the left than the electorate. And in Colorado, the NRA and gun proponents made very clear that passing such restrictions is politically risky.
One week ago Tuesday, two Democratic legislators in the state faced — and lost — recall efforts stemming from their support of the new restrictions. The vote that ousted the two wasn't entirely about guns, of course; any vote against a legislator necessarily includes a wide array of longstanding complaints from the electorate. But the election itself was predicated on their support of gun control. Had they not cast votes for the issue, both would still be in the State Senate.
The timing is remarkable. If the NRA wants to put pressure on legislators, they need only pull out week-old newspapers, drop still-warm mail pieces on the desks of those thinking about new laws. Lay down the paper, point at the headline, shrug, and walk out.
President Obama is the politically weakest he's been since his first inauguration.
By contrast, the president has only grown politically weaker in the months since Newtown. Last December, he'd just been reelected handily, had an obvious mandate to advocate what policies he desired. Starting in part with the failed Senate compromise vote in April, that advantage has eroded, and badly.
In the aftermath of his poorly-received push for action in Syria, the president's approval is the lowest it has been in a year, according to a new ABC News poll. He's doing worse on Capitol Hill, as we noted Monday morning. The staunch opposition of Senate and House conservatives has now been joined with broader skepticism from members of his own party, even as he hopes to corral them on critical economic measures. By this time next month, Congress will have had to resolve fraught discussions around renewing government funding and lifting the debt ceiling. It is very unlikely that the president will want to spend political capital he needs for those fights in an almost-certainly fruitless push for gun laws that were rejected only five months ago.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed discussion of gun control during his daily briefing on Monday — admittedly while the situation at the Navy Yard was still being resolved. The president, speaking several hours later, spoke only in vague terms. The government would be "investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them."
In Washington, "can" is different than "should."
Gun control legislators may keep their powder dry.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Feinstein again called for action. "Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country," she wrote in a public statement. "We must do more to stop this endless loss of life."
In April, Feinstein's amendment focused on military-style rifles failed badly. The issue is personally important to the senator, who was the first person to find San Francisco legislator Harvey Milk after his assassination in 1978. As only one percent of the Senate — and 0.2 percent of Congress — her ability to effect change is limited.
One of Feinstein's allies in the fight for new measures, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, postponed a hearing planned for Tuesday addressing "stand your ground" laws, legislation allowing the use of deadly force for civilians under certain circumstances, which became a topic of national attention following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Yahoo News reports:
Another witness, Lucia McBath, whose unarmed teenage son Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville last year while sitting in his car by a man who claimed to be acting in self defense, said her flight to Washington was delayed when the Washington airport was temporarily shut down in response to the Navy Yard shooting. McBath and her attorney John Phillips told Yahoo News that Monday’s shooting was more proof that Congress needs to pass gun laws.
“I can't even put it into words how bitterly ironic and significant that is that we were all delayed [on our way to a gun control hearing] because of a shooting in DC,” Phillips said.
Instead of considering the moment an opportunity to introduce and discuss reforms aimed at reducing gun violence, Durbin's decision suggests some skittishness — not a sign that the Senate will try to push new legislation in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings.
The details of the crime fit existing preconceptions.
Perhaps the most telling point is the one implicit in Hume's comments: The Alexis shooting was sadly unexceptional.
As we reported on Monday, no recent president has seen as many mass killings in as short a time as President Obama. Such massacres are numbly routine. And the circumstances here — involving an apparently unstable person, a veteran, who attacked those at a place where he worked — are not ones that inspire much shock. Killing two dozen children in rooms brightened with their drawings, two weeks before Christmas, was a stunning act. Office workers killed at work is just sort of how these things go.
The circumstances also make it easy for the NRA to explain away. After Newtown, the organization scrambled to introduce a proposal that maintained its core priorities but still (in its eyes) addressed the problem. Here, they can just point to their long-standing argument that mental health issues are to blame, and move on.
It would take a lot more than 13 dead in Washington, D.C. for reform in this moment. Let's hope it doesn't happen.