Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by a lone gunman shocked the nation. Investigators are beginning to try to piece together the answers as to why accused shooter Aaron Alexis murdered 12 people in cold blood as well as how a person that apparently had a history of run-ins with the law and mental-health problems could have gotten a job with a subcontractor for the Navy. This latest instance of gun violence also raises questions about why these incidents are becoming something we’ve come to see as regular occurrences (this is the third in the last year). Indeed, who couldn’t but sympathize with Dr. Janis Orlowski, the head of the trauma center that treated the victims, when she pleaded for an end to these atrocities:
“There’s something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate,” she said, adding that “I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.” She added: “Let’s get rid of this. This is not America.”
But while some will interpret this statement as a call for more gun control, it’s not likely the Navy Yard murders will lead to a new legislative push on the issue. Last December’s mass shooting of first graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut may have been the impetus for what promised at the time to be the signature issue of President Obama’s second term. But nine months later, the administration may have learned that there are limited returns from exploiting such tragedies. Here are three reasons why this won’t be the start of another gun-control moment.
First is that the frequency of these incidents (even if they are a tiny fraction of all gun deaths) makes it harder to exploit the emotion they evoke for political purposes. The post-Newtown gun furor was partly the function of shock over the senseless deaths of small children and the grief of the parents and relatives. The Washington victims deserve the same sympathy as other victims, but the opening for mindless emotionalism in which all rational arguments about the virtues and defects about potential legislation are ignored isn’t as great here.
Mass shootings such as these deserve our attention, but their use as launching pads for politicized campaigns is a matter of diminishing returns. Having asked us to put aside reasoned debate about gun rights in the name of grief over Newtown, it’s difficult for even as skilled a speechmaker as President Obama to endlessly play the same game.
Second, the political class and even the media that relentlessly promoted the memory of Newtown as an unanswerable argument for restrictions on gun ownership understand that it didn’t work. While a majority of Americans favor minimal measures such as background checks, the resistance to such proposals stems from the fact that, disclaimers notwithstanding, it isn’t hard to imagine that these ideas are merely the first step toward more restrictive measures that few outside of the left support. Not even a full-court press on the part of the administration and the media was able to convince Congress to budge on guns last winter and spring. Though the National Rifle Association took a beating last December for an inept response to Newtown, the gang tackle of the liberal establishment on the group only helped it. The NRA’s membership went up, as did contributions in the wake of attacks on it after Newtown.
The recall elections in Colorado will also play a large role in dampening the enthusiasm of liberals for another tilt with the NRA. Despite an advantage in fundraising thanks to outside forces like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group, two Colorado state senators were thrown out of office in special elections held this month over their votes for new gun laws. While national Democrats have tried to obfuscate the results with transparently false charges about voter suppression, the facts on the ground told a different story. Pro-gun groups showed they could mobilize their members and sympathizers and turn them out to vote. When push came to shove, rather than being the paper tiger the press made them out to be or merely the plaything of gun manufacturers, the NRA proved again they were something that no liberal group can claim to be: a grass roots movement with enormous popular support.
Third and perhaps most important is the gap between post-Newtown rhetoric and the reality of gun laws. It’s one thing to ask people to be outraged about these incidents. They are awful and we should be upset about them. But it’s quite another to connect them to proposed laws that almost certainly wouldn’t prevent their recurrence. The American people can be manipulated but they are not stupid. Despite the emotional speeches in which victim families were used as presidential props, it quickly became apparent that nothing proposed by President Obama would have prevented the Sandy Hook killings. The same will be true if some liberals attempt to repeat the trick after Washington. The focus on guns rather than mental health—the one factor that is common to all of these incidents—just doesn’t make sense to most Americans.
Efforts to ban guns or otherwise restrict or annul Second Amendment rights will continue. So will more reasoned attempts to deal with the mental-health aspect of a tragedy that is consistently underplayed. But the ability of President Obama to exploit mass killings was shown after Newtown to be a factor with a limited shelf life. Having failed after that heart-rending incident, it’s not likely he’ll squander what little political capital he has left on a rerun of that gambit.