WASHINGTON -- The national sense of outrage swiftly passes. That's the lesson of American gun tragedies past.
In January 2011, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) barely survived being shot point-blank in the head by a man who emptied his 30-round magazine into 19 people, killing a federal judge and five others.
It's hard to imagine an incident that would be more likely to advance the cause of gun control in Washington. But nothing happened.
President Barack Obama called for a national dialogue, but didn't lead one. Gun-control Democrats proposed banning high-capacity clips, like the ones Giffords' shooter used, but their bills went nowhere.
The gunman who opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater Friday morning, shooting 71 people and killing 12, is said to have been armed with two handguns, a shotgun and an assault-style rifle, some of which were presumably equipped with high-capacity clips. "There were many, many rounds fired," Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said at a Friday press conference. "We know there were a lot of rounds fired very rapidly."
The message here should be clear, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a group opposed to gun violence. "You put a military level of firepower in the hands of civilians, and this is the natural result," she said. "The lesson that other countries have learned is that you have to restrict access to these instruments that allow people to inflict so much injury and death so quickly."
Specifically, Rand said that "high-capacity magazines, whether they're in a pistol or an assault rifle, are the common thread in every major mass shooting in the U.S. going back to the early '80s."
But many politicians are responding to the shooting with pieties rather than policy proposals.
According to Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there isn't anything wrong with showing sympathy, but there has to be more. "You have to question how genuine that sympathy is if it's not accompanied by talk about solutions to the problem."
Opponents of gun control have a powerful rhetorical argument in their arsenal. "The gun lobby is very effective at saying that 'Now is not the time to exploit these events for political purposes,'" Rand said. "Their goal is to delay so that the pressure comes off of policy makers, the immediacy fades and everyone turns their attention to something else."
Gross agreed. "That's the arc that these things always take and they know it," he said.
But, Gross said, the "now is not the time" argument would only be genuine "if history showed that there ever is a time to discuss the role of gun policy in preventing these tragedies."
And Rand said it's appropriate to start talking about solutions right away. "It's not politics, it's public health," she said. "You have an industry that manufactures a product that is completely unregulated from a health and safety standpoint."
Rand explained: "Firearms are consumer products. If this were some other consumer product -- if this were an airplane crash, or some major car crash, or poisoned food -- people would say, 'Okay, let's look at how we prevent this from happening again.' It's only when it's guns that people say 'it's too early.' It's like if the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] couldn't go out to the site of an airplane crash because the families are still mourning."
The powerful National Rifle Association -- which opposes any restrictions on gun rights -- is lying low for now, the Washington Examiner reported. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community," an NRA spokesman told the Examiner. "NRA will not have any further comment until all the facts are known."
But many politicians fear of the NRA -- even though it may be in decline.
"I think the problem is that we have politicians making calculations based on how much political pain they're going to receive from certain votes on the gun issue, not on the pain that gun violence is causing American families and communities," said Ladd Everitt, the director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
A few politicians responded to Friday's tragedy with a call for conversation, if not action. Chief among them was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said in a radio interview: "You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country."
New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement Friday that "if our society is serious about preventing this kind of bloodshed, yesterday’s heartbreaking tragedy must propel us to renew our national conversation on gun violence and explore sensible restrictions on assault rifles, like the AK-47 used last night in Colorado.” (It was actually an AR-15.)
Obama did not talk about ways to address the problem in his statement Friday morning from Fort Myers, Fla. Despite being an outspoken advocate of tougher gun measures earlier in his political career, he has almost never raised the topic as president.
In March 2011, two months after the Giffords shooting, Obama wrote an opinion column in the Arizona Daily Star. "Our focus right now should be on sound and effective steps that will actually keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place," he wrote.
The only concrete step he proposed was to focus on background checks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked Friday about the president's view on gun laws in the wake of the latest shooting. "I would say, as you know, the president believes we need to take common sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing laws do not get them," Carney said. "We're making progress in that regard in terms of improving the volume and quality of information on background checks but I have nothing additional on that for you."
Gross said he doesn't blame Obama -- or Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, an avowed gun advocate -- for their expressions of sympathy. "What I blame them for is what they've done leading up to today," he said.
"The president called for a national dialogue on the gun issue," Gross said, "but has not asserted his voice or leadership in that dialogue."
He said he hopes this time will be different.
"We cannot allow this tragedy to just dissipate without underscoring the undeniable link between guns in our country and gun violence," Gross said. "We have to coalesce that anger and outrage and harness it for the purpose of demanding answers and demanding solutions."
See below graphics for some stats on U.S. gun ownership over the years.
"Michelle and I are shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado," President Obama said in a statement. "Federal and local law enforcement are still responding, and my Administration will do everything that we can to support the people of Aurora in this extraordinarily difficult time. We are committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded. As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family. All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, and we must stand together with them in the challenging hours and days to come."
"Ann and I are deeply saddened by the news of the senseless violence that took the lives of 15 people in Colorado and injured dozens more," Mitt Romney said in a statement. "We are praying for the families and loved ones of the victims during this time of deep shock and immense grief. We expect that the person responsible for this terrible crime will be quickly brought to justice."
Sen. Robert Menendez
Scott P. Brown
Speaker John Boehner
Senator John Thune
"This was horrible, senseless and abhorrent act," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Co.) said in a statement. "My family and I are shocked and deeply saddened this morning and our hearts are with the victims and their families. My staff and I are in contact with and offering our support to law enforcement and medical officials as they respond to the shooting."
"This is not only an act of extreme violence, it is also an act of depravity," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said.
"Heartfelt prayers for the victims in Aurora, Colorado and all those impacted by this terrible tragedy," Mike Huckabee said in a statement on his Facebook page.
"I am heartbroken and shocked by the horrific act of violence in Colorado," Tim Kaine said in a statement. "The thoughts of Anne and I are with the families who have lost loved ones in this senseless tragedy. We continue to pray for the recovery of those who have been wounded, and we offer our support to Governor Hickenlooper and the entire community of Aurora as they heal."
"Michael Haley and I have the victims and their families of the Colorado massacre in our thoughts," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in a statement on Facebook. "Please join us in prayer for all those effected by this horrible senseless tragedy."
"I join in mourning the tragic loss of life in Colorado this morning. The families of the victims, the many injured, and all those in Aurora are in my thoughts and in my prayers," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said in a statement Friday. "It is in times like these that Americans have always rallied together as one community and one family, and we do so again today. I commend the heroism of our first responders from local and federal law enforcement and area hospitals, who have done an outstanding job in the face of great difficulty. "As the people of Aurora find themselves facing their darkest hour, I hope they find comfort knowing that the memories of the lost will never fade, their community will remain strong, and that the nation stands united alongside them as their process of healing begins."
"Elaine and I are heartbroken by the shootings in Aurora," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday in a statement. "This senseless massacre of so many innocent people gathered with friends and family in a movie theater reminds us not only of the great evil that exists in the hearts of some, but of the great and precious gift of life. I join all Americans today in prayer for the victims, their families and friends, and the wider Aurora community, and in heartfelt thanks to all the first responders who quickly responded at great risk to themselves. It is in moments like this that Americans have always drawn closer together and shown their great compassion and generosity to those touched by tragedy and loss. We hope that in the midst of the horror in Aurora, these qualities shine through once again and reach those who are suffering most. America is at prayer today for all who are affected by this tragedy."
Rep. Diana DeGette
"The shooting in the Aurora movie theater is a national tragedy, and the victims of this cruel and violent act are in my thoughts," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement Friday. "Innocent people suffered a heartbreaking loss, but the victims and their families are not alone. Today, Americans take time to reflect on the value of life and the things that are most important to us, and mourn for those who lost what is most important to them. Everyone affected by this violent act will be in our hearts today, and for a long time to come."
"The horrific nightmare of a mass shooting on innocent civilians in a crowded public place has, sadly, come true once again," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose family was affected by a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad before she was elected to Congress, in a statement Friday. "I mourn alongside the people of Aurora for the many killed and injured and the countless family and friends whose lives, as a result of the consequences of this event, will be negatively affected for decades to come. The shooter should be brought to justice and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we as a nation should also not continue to ignore avenues to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future."
Senator Dick Durbin
"This is a terrible tragedy for the families of the victims, the city of Aurora and our entire nation," Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren said in a statement Friday. "This senseless violence has no place in our society. As a mother and grandmother, I am truly saddened that so many of the victims were so young. Bruce and I send our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their loved ones."
"The shooting in Aurora is a senseless tragedy and a despicable act," said Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in a statement Friday. "Our thoughts go out to the victims, their families, and to the entire community as they deal with the shock and grief today brings. "
"Jill and I were shocked to learn of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado this morning," Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement Friday. "The reason this is so deeply felt by all Americans is that, but for the grace of God, the victims could have been any one of our children, in any one of our towns. It is every parent's worst nightmare to receive 'that phone call' and to sit by their child's bedside, praying. We know what it's like to wait and wonder and the helplessness a parent feels at this moment. Our hearts go out to each and every person who is suffering right now as a result of this terrible event. The prayers of an entire nation are with the victims and their families. We stand with the city of Aurora and the state of Colorado in mourning."
Gov. Buddy Roemer
"Todd's and my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of the terrible tragedy in Colorado," Sarah Palin said Friday in a statement on Facebook. "Our family joins others in praying for everyone affected by the evil that inexplicably took innocent lives. We wish to remind all to hold loved ones tight."