From a member of Congress being shot in the head to 20 children being gunned down at an elementary school, there is a sense on Capitol Hill that even the most gruesome mass shootings aren't enough to compel movement toward stricter gun laws. And another shooting that left 13 people dead, just blocks from the Capitol at the Washington Navy Yard, doesn't appear to have changed the calculus all that much.
"The only thing I could think of that would be more horrible than what has already happened is if there was a shooting in an NICU [neonatal intensive care unit]. That's the only thing I can of that can top it," says Shannon Watts, founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "We've had a plethora of mass shootings, but just the daily violence, we are so desensitized to this. The proof is the country doesn't act when 20 innocent lives are taken in such a horrifically awful way."
In light of Monday's shootings at the Navy Yard, some lawmakers have renewed talk of gun reform. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the latest tragedy should inspire a call to action that may tie together mental-health issues and expanded background checks.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a leading voice in the gun debate, also called for Congress to take up the debate once again. But even she said on Tuesday, "I'm not optimistic right now."
"I don't know when enough is enough," she told reporters. "I thought the Connecticut situation, that people would see it and rebel against it, and say, "˜Look, we've got to do something.' So even a watered-down background check couldn't get passed."
After 20 children and six staff members were slain in a Newtown, Conn., school by a lone gunman in December, there was an intense push to strengthen background checks and other federal gun-purchasing laws, but Senate backers of the proposal couldn't overcome a filibuster. They fell five votes short of the 60 needed to end debate on the bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has acknowledged he doesn't have the votes yet to pass the bill, and even Feinstein said she wasn't going to push Reid to schedule a vote this year unless there was more support "because I don't want another loss."
One of the leading proponents of stronger gun laws, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that most Americans support background checks, so "sooner or later it's going to happen. I can't tell you how and when, but it's going to happen."
Based on the Senate's track record so far, the debate will probably come later rather than sooner.
"I'm listening to see if any of my colleagues are willing to change their vote on Manchin-Toomey. I have not heard anything yet, but hope springs eternal," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Manchin spent Tuesday clarifying that his bill shouldn't be considered gun control: "It's background checks, which is gun sense." He hadn't spoken with Toomey about bringing it back and also wasn't sure whether the momentum for passage had changed. "I've been so involved in Syria right now and all the other things going on, we'll just have to see how it unfolds," Manchin said.
One reporter pressed Manchin on why the Navy Yard massacre wasn't enough to change senators' minds, just as the January 2011 wounding of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., did not move the needle on gun-law reform. "You've been around here longer than I have," he responded.
Some Newtown families will be in Washington this week for a trip that had been previously scheduled prior to the Navy Yard shooting. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has repeatedly taken to the Senate floor to talk about Newtown families and to push for gun reform. But he told National Journal Daily that "it's too early to know yet" what effect the Navy Yard shooting will have on the debate.
"We have to ask ourselves, "˜How many people have to die before we get serious about gun violence?' Twenty-six wasn't enough? Is another 13 going to make the difference?" Murphy asked. "The fact is, there's ultimately going to be consequences for senators and House members who continue to ignore this continuing slaughter."
Reform advocates are looking ahead to the 2014 midterm elections as their next, best chance to build political capital for passing gun legislation. Those elections are also a target for reform opponents, who were recently emboldened when Colorado voters recalled two state senators over their support for comprehensive gun control.
Watts says her "Moms" group received a boost in donations and volunteers after Monday's shootings, and refers to many the organization's members as "one-issue voters."
"This is not the right Congress to ask" to change gun laws, Watts said. "We have to get the Senate and the House on the record on background checks.... We knew this was a marathon, not a sprint. And the [National Rifle Association] has had more than 30 years [to lobby]."