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Confederate flag debate eclipses one on gun control

Virtually no one has advocated for stronger gun control laws in the wake of the Charleston massacre.

In the near-week since a shooting rampage left nine African-American parishioners dead at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, all eyes have turned to the Confederate Battle flag flying above the state capitol grounds. It’s the same flag featured prominently on a website purportedly linked to the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, along with a bevy of white supremacist writings.

But what about the semiautomatic handgun Roof confessed to using in last week’s shooting attack? While more than half a million people, lawmakers, and presidential candidates have called for the removal of the Confederate flag from government places, virtually no one has advocated for stronger gun control laws in the wake of the Charleston massacre.

RELATED: Charleston church massacre: Dylann Roof’s gun bought at local store

Leading the charge now against the Confederate flag is South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who on Monday called for its removal from the capitol in Columbia. Though the flag represents “traditions that are noble” for many in the state, Haley, surrounded by a number of fellow Republican leaders, said in a press conference that it’s also “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” for others.

Shortly after her remarks, Mississippi’s Republican speaker of the state House expressed a similar sentiment, saying that the Confederate battle emblem should be removed from his state's flag — the only one still incorporating the image in full. “As a Christian,” Speaker Philip Gunn said, “I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.”

Even some of the most vocal champions of gun reform have opted instead to focus on the Confederate flag issue following last week’s shooting.'

Nearly every major GOP presidential contender has voiced support for Haley's decision. But none — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Donald Trump — responded to msnbc's request for comment on whether the shooting indicated a need for stronger gun restrictions. Some have revealed their hands, however, in more unguarded moments.

"Laws can't change this," New Jersey Gov. Christie — who's expected to formally announce a White House bid next month — told attendees at last Friday's Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C. That same day, another White House hopeful, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, similarly stuck to his old script on gun control. 

"You know the great thing about the state of Iowa is," Cruz joked at a town hall meeting in Red Oak, "I'm pretty sure you all define gun control the same way we do in Texas — hitting what you aim at."

Even some of the most vocal champions of gun reform have opted instead to focus on the Confederate flag issue following last week’s shooting. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who tried and failed to push through a package of gun-control measures earlier this year, announced on Tuesday that he would remove the Confederate emblem from state-issued license plates. At no point in McAuliffe’s announcement did he address gun control, though his communication director, Brian Coy, told msnbc later in the day that the governor would “continue the fight” to keep guns "out of dangerous hands.”

RELATED: Charleston attack drags GOP 2016 field into uncomfortable places

It remains to be seen whether South Carolina’s General Assembly has the two-thirds super majority necessary to remove the Confederate flag from its perch. But what seems all but certain is that any conversation about stricter gun control laws in the wake of the Charleston shooting has been cast aside or lost entirely.

“Removing the Confederate flag is a necessary but totally insufficient response to Charleston,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, in a statement to msnbc. “It's easier to take down a flag than seriously confront America's gun violence epidemic, but just because it's not easy doesn't mean we should continue to ignore the increasing carnage across America."

"It’s easier to take down a flag than seriously confront America’s gun violence epidemic, but just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we should continue to ignore the increasing carnage across America.”'

Murphy, who earlier in the day tweeted that Walmart should stop selling certain types of guns in addition to Confederate flag merchandise, added: "I’m gravely concerned that people are focused only on the flag instead of attempting to take on America’s gun violence epidemic simply because an offensive flag is easy to fix."

On one hand, the relative silence on gun control comes as quite a shock. Yes, Roof seems to have an affinity for Confederate memorabilia based off photographs of the 21-year-old clutching a flag and straddling a license plate bearing the familiar blue “X,” white stars, and red backdrop. And perhaps it’s reasonable to assume that Roof drew inspiration from the Confederacy, which fought to keep slavery legal during the Civil War, for his racial hatred. But shouldn’t the firearm he actually used to kill nine black people at least be part of the conversation on how to move forward?

Law enforcement officials say the 21-year-old bought the 45-caliber Glock on April 11, less than two months after he was arrested in late February and indicted on a state drug charge, a misdemeanor under South Carolina law. The sale of the gun to Roof was legal, NBC's Pete Williams and Mark Potter reported.

On the other hand, however, this fixation on the flag over the gun comes as no surprise. The country has seen mass shootings before — including one that left 20 elementary school kids dead in Newtown, Connecticut — and that still hasn’t made it any more difficult to get a gun. It's understandable, then, that the staunchest gun control advocates may feel like giving up.
President Obama registered this fatigue when he first responded to the Charleston shooting on Thursday, just more than two years after a bipartisan gun control package failed to clear the Senate, which was then under Democratic control. It was the 14th time Obama has had to address a gun-related tragedy.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said in a televised address at the White House. “We do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."
Haley, who has an "A+" rating from the National Rifle Association, did not return msnbc's request for comment on whether she felt there needed to be another conversation on gun control in addition to the one unfolding over the Confederate flag. But in an interview on NBC's "TODAY" show last week, Haley suggested that guns were often wrongfully scapegoated in events like this.

“Anytime there’s a traumatic situation, people want something to blame, they always want something to go after," Haley said in response to a question on gun control. "There is one person to blame here. A person filled with hate, a person that does not define South Carolina. And we are going to focus on that one person."