The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After mass shootings, the status quo reigns supreme in Congress

This post has been updated.

After the shooting at University of California, Santa Barbara on Friday, a rampage that left six students dead from gun or knife wounds, many parents and politicians found the federal government's past responses to similar tragedies to be one of the culprits. “Have we learned nothing?” Richard Martinez, father of one of the victims, said. “These things are going to continue until somebody does something, so where the hell is the leadership?"

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had a similar response on CBS's Face the Nation. "Congress will be complicit if we fail to act."

The statements felt familiar — we've heard similar exhortations for Congress to pass new gun legislation after many mass shootings. However, we also hear arguments for loosening gun restrictions, arguments that have proved far more successful. Since 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in 1999, Congress has passed one major law strengthening gun control in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Nine months after the shooting at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in April 2007, Congress passed a law improving the national background check system, adding more rigorous records for felons and mentally ill individuals to the federal database.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at the time, said, "It's the first gun-control legislation of any sort that Congress has passed in over 12 years." Reporting from the Center on Public Integrity in 2011 shows that the legislation wasn't that major — it left many other flaws in the background check system unfixed.

Even though the success rate for gun control on the federal level is near nonexistent, that doesn't mean politicians aren't sponsoring gun legislation. They just aren't hitting any home runs. A New York Times report from December 2013 found that 1,500 gun bills — including the failed Manchin-Toomey background check bill that failed in the Senate — had been introduced around the country since the shooting in Newtown the previous year. Only 109 became law. On the federal level, the only policy changes came from the executive branch, with President Obama's 23 executive actions to reduce gun violence.

In the year after the shooting at Columbine, 800 gun bills were introduced around the country, according to Popular Science Magazine. Less than 10 percent passed. One of the failed efforts included a federal bill to close the gun show loophole, which allows unlicensed dealers to sell guns without background checks.

Campaigns for expanding gun access — and therefore increasing the number of armed individuals in America, hoping that more guns could prove a defense against mass shooters — have proved the road taken far more frequently after tragedies like the one at Isla Vista, as the above data shows. Defenders of the status quo on the federal level point to states that have robust gun legislation — like California, which the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave high marks last December for having the strongest gun laws in the country — and say they have proved wanting when it comes to preventing mass shootings.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, (R-Tex.), said of the Sandy Hook Elementary teacher who died protecting her students, "I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office." After Newtown, National Rifle Association membership reached record heights. A Pew Research Center study from 2012 showed that opinions about gun control versus gun rights were unchanged by the previous three mass shootings in the United States. After Newtown, America briefly swung to supporting stronger gun restrictions. The window was short, and soon after the background check bill failed in the Senate, public opinion began to fall. Support for gun rights has climbed steadily for the past two decades. Seventy of those 109 gun laws passed in the year after Newtown loosened gun restrictions.

Even places where one might think gun legislation would meet success have quashed gun bills lately. In California last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed 11 new pieces of gun legislation, but vetoed seven — including one that would have made it harder for mentally ill individuals to obtain guns.

In short, mass shootings have done little to alter Congress' desire to change our country's federal gun policies. On the state level, shootings have been more likely to inspire a step away from gun regulation lately. It seems unlikely that Congress will renew attempts to pass new background check legislation or new gun restrictions for mentally ill persons — especially this close to an election that could change leadership in the Senate. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who faces a close race in Alaska this year, has an A-rating from the NRA and sponsored NRA-approved gun legislation last year that many thought could make it easier for the mentally ill to obtain guns. Begich and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor voted against the background check bill last year.

In an interview with Rolling Stone after his presidency, Bill Clinton tried to explain the reason why Congress didn't pass gun legislation after Columbine. "The NRA can muster an enormous percentage of the vote — maybe fifteen percent, even twenty percent in some districts, because for those people guns are a primary voting issue. So if you've got a race where you're ahead sixty to thirty, but in your sixty percent, gun control is a primary voting issue for ten percent of the people, and in their thirty it's a primary voting issue for twenty percent of their people — the truth is, you're a net loser by ten percent. That's what happens in Congress and state legislatures. They're genuinely afraid."

In the 1994 midterms, many Democrats blamed the assault rifle ban — which was not renewed after it expired in 2004 — and the Brady bill for the Democrats' losses. The party has likely been worried about a repeat in 2014 ever since the Manchin-Toomey bill was proposed last year. Many gun bills may emerge in the next few months, but history doesn't bode well for their chances.

A previous version of this article stated that Sen. Blumenthal was from California. He represents Connecticut.