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The gun debate is going nowhere quickly after Parkland

Former congressman David Jolly (R-Fla.) appeared on CNN on Wednesday night — hours after 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla. — and delivered a commentary about gun control that has since gone viral. “There is a lot that is perhaps unknown, politically,” he began, “but let's be brutally honest about what we do know, and I say this as a Republican: Republicans will never do anything on gun control.”

“Never” may be too strong a word. But it has quickly become clear that Jolly is in all likelihood right about this particular instance leading to action on gun control, for a few reasons:

  1. The fundamentals of the gun debate haven't appreciably changed in recent years.
  2. The other most recent large-scale mass shooting — 58 died in Las Vegas last year — hasn't led to legislation on something nearly everyone agreed upon: “bump stocks.”
  3. Conservatives have quickly found another plausible culprit: the FBI.

I've written before about the disconnect between how conservatives and liberals tend to view mass shootings. While conservatives tell pollsters they favor universal background checks, they also generally say they don't think gun control would prevent these mass shootings or even violence writ large. A June 2016 poll from Quinnipiac University showed that 53 percent of Republicans said background checks on all gun purchases wouldn't reduce gun violence. And 24 percent thought that a ban on “assault weapons” would do any good.

The tragedy in Las Vegas resulted in an issue that had even more consensus support than universal background checks. That was reining in bump stocks, a modification that effectively turns a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon. The shooter in Las Vegas used the modification and a perch high above an outdoor concert to kill more people than in any mass shooting in American history.

After the tragedy, even the National Rifle Association — which opposes almost every piece of gun-control legislation almost out of hand — came out in support of cracking down on bump stocks. This seemed at the time to give NRA-supporting Republican in Congress cover to vote for legislation even on this very limited bit of gun control. A Quinnipiac poll a week later showed 73 percent of Americans supported banning bump stocks, and 60 percent — an all-time high for the pollster — said they supported stricter gun laws overall.

But more than four months later, Congress has done nothing about bump stocks or anything else gun-related. The NRA suggested the issue could be handled on the regulatory level, but that hasn't happened either. In late December, the Justice Department determined that Congress had to be the institution to act, because the department didn't have the legal authority to do so. Almost two more months have passed, and Congress still hasn't done anything — leading advocates to push for the change at the state level.

In that case, bump stocks were quickly the focus — the easiest quick fix the country could find. But after the massacre in Parkland, no similar consensus is forming. Although Democrats quickly focused on guns, conservatives up to and including President Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. soon spotlighted non-gun issues. The president's first comments called the shooter “mentally disturbed” — a clear suggestion that this is not about guns but rather about mental health — and he mentioned mental health but not guns again in a White House address Thursday morning.

At his weekly news conference, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) rejected calls from Democrats to start a committee to study legislative proposals to reduce gun violence.

“This is not the time to jump to some conclusion,” he said.

Other conservatives, meanwhile, have keyed upon reports that the FBI had been warned about the shooter. A YouTube commenter who shared the alleged shooter's name, Nikolas Cruz, had reportedly posted a comment saying, “I'm going to be a professional school shooter.” CNN has reported that the threat and at least one other were reported to the FBI but that the FBI didn't flag the issue for local law enforcement.

Some conservatives are even accusing the FBI of focusing too much on the Russia investigation and missing Cruz's red flags. Donald Trump Jr. favorited a tweet to that effect.

We're still awaiting more details, but the possibility that the FBI may have been warned and didn't prevent the Florida massacre is looking as if it may be a major focus of the post-Parkland debate. Combine that with Trump's focus on mental health, and it will almost certainly lead Republicans to focus on those issues rather than on guns. Not that we were likely to see gun legislation anyway.