Navy Yard shootings unlikely to jump-start the debate over tougher gun control laws


The American flag flies at half-mast at the Capitol on September 16, 2013. President Barack Obama ordered flags be lowered to half mast through Friday after a mass shooting at the Navy Yard left 13 dead, including the shooter. (MICHAEL MATHES/AFP/Getty Images)
September 17, 2013

The deadly shootings at the Washington Navy Yard have quickly, and predictably, resurrected the debate about tighter federal gun laws, but there is little expectation that the tragic event will generate enough political momentum to produce any new legislation.

Even before Monday’s Navy Yard shootings, gun control activists were scheduled to be on Capitol Hill this week for public rallies and private meetings with lawmakers as they mark nine months since the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 26 people dead, including 20 schoolchildren.

The events come at a time of shifting public sentiment on guns. Public support for stricter laws has faded since April, when the Senate failed to advance a bipartisan proposal to expand the federal background check system for gun sales. The recent recall of two Colorado state legislators who supported stricter state gun laws is also viewed as a warning to lawmakers who favor stricter gun control laws.

The legislative calendar is of little help to them as well: The House and Senate face a Sept. 30 deadline to pass a short-term budget and are preparing for a much sharper battle over expanded borrowing authority for the federal government that could stretch into November. Republican leaders in the House did not permit votes on gun control bills last spring and are expected to move on to immigration reform once the fiscal fights are over.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he was eager to consider new gun legislation but acknowledged that he does not have enough support to pass a bill. “We’re going to move this up as quickly as we can, but we’ve got to have the votes first,” Reid said Tuesday. “We don’t have the votes. I hope we get them, but we don’t have them now.”

Those who favor more gun control laws have leveled off.

Reid said supporters of new gun laws “want to stop people who have mental illness from buying a gun. We want to stop people who are felons from being able to purchase a gun.”

In an interview with the Spanish-language television network Telemundo, President Obama called on Congress to take up the issue again. “The overwhelming majority of the American people understand that there’s some common-sense gun safety laws that we can put in place that could prevent some of this tragedy from happening,” he said, adding later: “I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings.”

But that majority has gotten smaller in recent months. Just over half favored new laws in polls taken after the shootings last year in Newtown and Aurora, Colo. In an April Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly nine in 10 supported closing the so-called gun-show loophole. Smaller majorities supported other measures, such as banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

While specific gun measures are popular, the lack of new federal laws in the wake of the Connecticut killings underscores divided public views. The Post-ABC poll found a bare majority saying it was a higher priority to enact new gun laws to reduce violence, but a substantial 40 percent said it was more important to protect the rights of gun owners. And 51 percent said having a gun at home makes it a safer place.

Aware of those shifts in public opinion, Democratic proponents called on their colleagues to support a new gun debate, but seemed to temper their remarks.

“We can protect the right of law-abiding citizens to use guns in a responsible, legal way for sporting and hunting, self-defense, but we’ve got to do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of those who would misuse them,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) was a lead sponsor of the bipartisan background-check proposal, but he said Tuesday that he didn’t know whether his original plan could earn enough support. He also strongly defended the proposal, emphasizing that it “is not gun control. It’s basically background checks, which we call ‘gun sense.’ ”

Manchin said he is willing to work with colleagues on legislation that might prohibit people diagnosed with mental illness from purchasing firearms, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has worked on the issue, said that is where talk of new federal gun policy should begin.

“I would like to see the current background check law redesigned to capture mental health events in a better way,” Graham told reporters.

Even if lawmakers begin working again on new gun bills, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, he doubts whether they will earn enough votes.

“We’ve had some very mixed signals” on the issue, Hoyer said during his weekly meeting with reporters. While nine in 10 Americans support expanded background checks, he noted that two Colorado state legislators recently lost recall elections for supporting such a plan.

“This is what politicians see as reaction — those 85 percent either didn’t show up or they didn’t vote what their response to polls is — because the two legislators were recalled,” Hoyer said. Congress should revive the gun debate, he said, but “if the past is prologue, then the prologue is not very hopeful.”

But supporters said they will keep trying. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has invited gun control activists visiting Washington this week to use his Capitol Hill office as a staging area and plans to attend a rally with them Wednesday.

“There’s not really a lot of difference between red states and blue states on support of background checks,” Murphy told reporters Tuesday. “People are furious with this place, and they’re going to be even angrier if after [Monday] we continue to do nothing.”

Paul Kane and Capital Insight polling analyst Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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