Senators Still Locked in Positions on Gun-Law Reform After Latest Massacre

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The American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff as ordered by President Barack Obama following the deadly shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard, Tuesday morning, Sept. 17, 2013, in Washington.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Sept. 17, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

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].”

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