Even After Navy Yard Shooting, Silence on Gun Control

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., leaves the Senate floor after speaking about gun legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
Sept. 24, 2013, 3:53 p.m.

A week after the Navy Yard shoot­ings left 13 people dead just blocks from the U.S. Cap­it­ol, there is little talk of gun con­trol on Cap­it­ol Hill.

As fisc­al fights and the specter of a gov­ern­ment shut­down dom­in­ate Con­gress, ad­voc­ates — in­clud­ing some who cham­pioned a failed ef­fort at gun le­gis­la­tion earli­er this year — are no longer in­tensely court­ing sup­port on the is­sue.

“It’s like Amer­ica has be­come in­ured to the fact that we can’t stop this kind of vi­ol­ence, when we can,” said Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., a vo­cal pro­ponent of gun con­trol. “The [Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation] has put such a blanket of ob­struc­tion over everything that even the simple back­ground check can’t get out.”

Speak­ing at a me­mori­al Sunday, Pres­id­ent Obama said such an event “ought to be a shock to us all as a na­tion and as a people. It ought to ob­sess us. It ought to lead to some sort of trans­form­a­tion.” He ad­ded, “Some­times I fear there’s a creep­ing resig­na­tion that these tra­gedies are just some­how the way it is, that this is some­how the new nor­mal.”

The shoot­ing of 20 Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary School stu­dents in New­town, Conn., cap­tured the na­tion’s at­ten­tion and el­ev­ated the gun de­bate in a way that hasn’t been seen in years. In­terest groups and co­ali­tions pre­vi­ously un­in­ter­ested in the is­sue be­came act­ive. The New­town shoot­ing was “that mo­ment, the mo­ment at which things changed,” said Ladd Everitt, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Co­ali­tion to Stop Gun Vi­ol­ence.

That tragedy promp­ted Obama to speak out force­fully against gun vi­ol­ence and to call for new reg­u­la­tions. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., penned a mod­er­ate bill that would have ex­pan­ded back­ground checks. That meas­ure failed by five votes.

But an­oth­er mass shoot­ing hasn’t sparked a new round of dis­cus­sions between Manchin and sen­at­ors who had voted against his bill.

“They’re all go­ing to have find their com­fort zone, and I keep the door open for every­body if they want to talk,” Manchin said. “I’m not go­ing to beat the drum here. I would hope that they would come and say, “˜Listen, we like this; look at that, can you change this word?’ But I’m not go­ing to cre­ate any loop­holes in the bill.”

Even Fein­stein, who was quick to call for gun-con­trol meas­ures after the Navy Yard shoot­ing, says con­ver­sa­tions with her col­leagues about gun le­gis­la­tion have not be­gun anew. When asked why the latest shoot­ing has not been more of a cata­lyst, she replied, “You’ve got me.”

Gun-rights groups like the NRA have ar­gued that the Navy Yard shoot­ing demon­strated the need for more armed per­son­nel at such fa­cil­it­ies. NRA Ex­ec­ut­ive Vice Pres­id­ent Wayne LaPierre said on NBC’s Meet the Press over the week­end that the Navy Yard was “com­pletely un­pro­tec­ted.”

Ad­voc­ates of new gun laws, however, say a long-term strategy is needed to achieve le­gis­lat­ive vic­tor­ies. Everitt main­tains that the move­ment’s nar­rat­ive to bol­ster gun laws has been wrong.

“The me­dia has been so ob­sessed with “˜Can you pass a short-term back­ground-check bill?’ That hasn’t been the fo­cus of our move­ment,” he said. Rather, the fo­cus, he says, has been on fin­an­cing cam­paigns for the 2014 elec­tions and build­ing “grass­roots en­ergy.” Both are spaces that gun-rights groups, not­ably the NRA, have long ex­celled in and will take some time to rival.

“If it does play out and we reach a situ­ation where we head in­to the midterms in 2014 without any pro­gress [on back­ground-check le­gis­la­tion], we’re go­ing to have to make a name for us, end some polit­ic­al ca­reers, and bol­ster those who stood with us,” Everitt said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who reg­u­larly speaks out against gun vi­ol­ence, said, “It’s pretty clear that we need to build a long-term polit­ic­al move­ment around an­ti­vi­ol­ence gun meas­ures. The only way to beat the NRA is to play their game.”

There is also a wide­spread sense that the cur­rent Con­gress can’t even pass in­noc­u­ous le­gis­la­tion, let alone tackle polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult and com­plex is­sues such as gun vi­ol­ence, and that too may con­trib­ute to a sense of resig­na­tion.

“The fact that the Navy Yard shoot­ing doesn’t even stay in the loc­al pa­pers for a week tells you something about this is­sue,” Murphy said. “It may be that it’s not that people have be­come im­mune to the vi­ol­ence. It may be that they’re just hope­less about wheth­er Wash­ing­ton can get its act to­geth­er to do something about it.”

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