We’ve seen this movie before. It’s the same one that plays after every mass shooting in America.
Tragedy strikes. Victims’ families, activists and politicians demand justice. There are calls for a renewed push for gun control, some sort of meaningful legislation to stave off future bloodbaths and save the life of someone else’s son, daughter, sister, brother, father or mother.
And then the whole effort fizzles out before it really begins. Virginia Tech. Tucson. Aurora. Newtown. Fort Hood. Will this same tragic pattern repeat itself now, in the aftermath of Santa Barbara?
Indeed, there were renewed calls for stricter gun laws over the weekend following 22-year-old Elliott Rodger’s shooting rampage in the southern California college town of Isla Vista. Authorities say Rodger, who had a history of mental health problems, killed six people before shooting himself in the head. Police said Rodger had passed a background check needed to buy the gun used in the shooting.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – a strong proponent for new measures restricting the sales of firearms after the 2012 mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary in his home state – urged Congress to revive the debate over background checks in the wake of the California shooting. Republican Rep. Peter King echoed that sentiment. And Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California declared, “Shame on us for allowing this to continue.”
Perhaps most striking, was Richard Martinez, whose son, Chris, was shot and killed by Rodger. Martinez skewered politicians for failing to pass stricter gun laws after Newtown. “Have we learned nothing? These things are going to continue until somebody does something,” he told CNN. “So where the hell is the leadership?” he asked, blaming his son’s death on “irresponsible politicians” and powerful gun lobby groups like the National Rifle Association.
Polls have continually shown that most Americans support stricter gun-control measures. A UMass Lowell survey released earlier this month even found that 78% of Americans are in favor of more thorough background checks and psychological analysis for people purchasing firearms.
But even after Newtown – which took the lives of 20 children – Congress was unable to pass a gun control bill that would have strengthened background checks. (The amendment failed 54-46, with 41 GOPers and five rural-state Democrats blocking the plan).
So would Congress even revisit gun control legislation? And how is this time any different?
If anything, it could be harder given the 2014 midterm elections are less than six months away. The Democrats are trying to keep their majority in the Senate, and four incumbents in gun-friendly, conservative states are in heated re-election battles, including Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Embracing a divisive issue like gun-control certainly wouldn’t do those Democrats any favors.
“Politics can change quickly but my sense is that Congress is going to need at least one election cycle before this legislation will be seriously considered again,” said Kristin A. Goss, an associate professor of public policy at the Sanford School at Duke University and co-author of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Goss added: “Even if it passed the Senate, I doubt it would pass the Senate with enough votes to make it a priority in the House, let alone pass in the current Congress.”
William Vizzard, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who is now a professor of criminal justice at California State University Sacramento, put it more bluntly. Even after the shooting in his state, federal gun control legislation “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” he said. Vizzard added: “The House is not going to move. Period. Maybe in four years, you might see something, but you’re not going to see anything significant in firearms legislation for years.”
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was asked about the April 2 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, which left more than a dozen injured and four people dead, including the gunman. The Democrat said he would like to bring up the bill again to expand background checks but said “I need some more votes.” A spokesman for Reid did not return requests for comment asking if the senator would push for another floor vote following the California shooting.
According to a New York Times report from the end of last year, about 1,500 state gun bills were introduced since the massacre in Newtown. Of those bills, 109 became law. The federal government has a far worse record, with the only changes stemming from Obama’s 23 executive actions on gun control, which he signed in January 2013, just months before the separate gun control bill was defeated in the Senate.
There’s also the powerful gun lobby, which has continually argued that expanding background checks will not reduce violent crime. The NRA, which often remains silent after mass shootings then argues more guns – not less – are the answer, has not yet commented on the California attack or Martinez blaming the group for his son’s death.
Larry Pratt, the executive director for Gun Owners of America, told msnbc that the renewed push for gun control legislation is “stupid” because Rodger had no record of violent behavior. Pratt, like the NRA has previously done, also argued that the victims in California could have defended themselves if they had guns of their own.
“I have to respect a grieving father, but the fact of the matter is that none of none of the victims were armed and able to protect themselves so they were like fish in a barrel. They were guaranteed victims,” said Pratt.
Still, reform isn’t dead, especially at the state level, said Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He pointed to states like Connecticut and Indiana, which have laws on the books allowing authorities to temporarily remove guns from people during and immediately following a dangerous mental health crisis. California, he said, should adopt similar legislation.
“Congress is dysfunctional and can’t pass anything. Gun violence is just one more example of that,” said Horwitz. But he added there have been a number of victories, like a gun ban for domestic violence offenders in states like Wisconsin, Washington and Louisiana.
In addition, other states including Colorado, Delaware, Illinois and New York have closed a loophole that had allowed for the sale of firearms from private dealers without background checks.
“We are in a much, much strong movement than we were a year ago and exponentially five years ago,” he said adding he hopes the “serious string of victories in states will push the country nationally…I’m very optimistic but I’m taking a long-view.”