WASHINGTON -- The horrific shooting of 20 individuals, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), at a Tucson meet-and-greet this past weekend would seem likely to prompt legislative tightening of the nation's gun laws, but the early word has been just the opposite.
In the shooting's immediate aftermath, the inclination -- from the sets of cable news shows to the desks of political reporters and the halls of Congress -- has been to dismiss attempts at gun control as futile. Instead, talk has centered around political rhetoric and the motivations of those who used the guns, rather than the accessibility of guns themselves.
So far only one legislative response has been authored. And in terms of reach -- restricting the availability of large-capacity clips like the one used by the alleged Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner -- even its principle backer acknowledges it comes up short.
"I've been in Congress in 14 years," Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) told The Huffington Post on Monday. "I know what I can get passed and I know what I can't get passed. And if I wanted to get something symbolic -- and we are going to reintroducing the assault-weapons ban and that's wonderful -- it won't go anywhere. It won't even get to committee."
McCarthy is arguably the bill's strongest backer in Congress, swept into office in 1996 after the December 1993 shooting death of her husband, in which her son was also severely injured, made her a fierce gun-control advocate. But this is the only piece of legislation she expects to result from the Tucson shooting. Anything more would be a lost cause.
The New York Democrat isn't the only one sour on the future of gun control legislation. Others are even more pessimistic, noting that there appears to be even little appetite to talk about revamping laws in the wake of Tucson.
"The thing is, every gun massacre has its own story and the storyline that follows from it," said Jim Kessler, a former director of policy and research at Americans for Gun Safety and co-founder of the centrist-Democratic organization Third Way. "And with this one, the thing people are focused on, including Third Way, to be fair, is political discourse."
As Kessler noted, that marks a striking contrast from the debates that followed two of the nation's last infamous gun-related tragedies, the school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Both of those events prompted a sustained political effort to focus the spotlight on gun-law shortcomings. Both, however, were also largely unsuccessful: In response to Columbine, Congress tried and failed to close the loophole allowing individuals to purchase firearms at gun shows; after Virginia Tech, the same effort was made, only to be scaled back following the National Rife Association's opposition to funding for state mandates that would have improved background checks.
The possibility of new regulation has also received little media attention compared to the scrutiny that followed those other tragedies. Just one day removed from the shooting, there was little focus on firearm regulations during the weekly political talk shows. Neither ABC's "This Week" nor CBS' "Face The Nation" included a single mention of the word "gun control" or "gun laws."
On NBC's "Meet The Press," there was no mentions of "gun control" but three mentions of "gun laws." But when Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) suggested that "the highly, highly permissive gun laws that we have in that state ... be examined," he was summarily shot down by Rep. Raul Labrador, a freshman Republican from Idaho.
"Fox News Sunday" offered one mention of "gun control" and two mentions of "gun laws," but during that segment, the Democrat on the panel -- Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) -- practically ran away from the issue.
"I do think we need to responsibly enforce the existing gun laws that place barriers for those who are mentally unstable to gun ownership or gun use," Coons said. "I think, frankly, that we need to move forward toward the biggest challenges in front of us, making sure we get Americans back to work, tackling our deficit and our debt, dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan."
Contrast that to the Sunday-show circuit that followed Virginia Tech. On CBS, there was two mentions of gun control and three mentions of gun law. On "Meet The Press," there was nine mentions of the word "gun control." On ABC, former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) waxed despondently about how politicians "can't just wait for these events to happen" before refining gun laws. Host George Stephanopoulos pressed his next guest, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on shortcomings in federal laws.
On Fox News, meanwhile, the Democratic panelist -- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- actually used the platform to reexamine existing gun laws and call for "really serious pieces of legislation" to improve federal databases.
The debate may have been tamped down by Giffords' longtime support for Second Amendment rights. But that hardly disqualifies discussion of the vagaries and gray areas of gun laws. The real explanation is simpler: Gun control is no longer a two-sided political issue.
Failure to pass meaningful reforms in the wake of Columbine and Virginia Tech -- owed primarily to the lobbying clout of the gun-rights community -- has dissuaded lawmakers from broaching the issue with much hope going forward. "Everybody is petrified of the NRA," said McCarthy.
Coupled with a series of recent legal setbacks, which McCarthy admitted have taken the debate over whether everyone has the right to own a firearm "off the plate for now," gun-control advocates now seem among the lonelier crusaders in Washington. In an October Gallup poll, 44 percent of respondents said the laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, matching the record-low number on that question, which Gallup had previously recorded in 2009.
Usually "politicians turn a blind eye to this," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Huffington Post's Lucia Graves. "They'll talk about violent video games, or they'll talk about rhetoric -- they'll talk about anything except guns. My main hope with this shooting is that maybe now we'll finally start to talk about the intolerable level of gun violence in this country."
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