Navy Yard shooting not enough to move gun control debate

Advocates fear public inured to violence that is 'as American as apple pie'

Tighter gun control laws appear to be beyond the reach of Congress despite mass shootings
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- By now, there’s a well-worn script to follow in the wake of mass shootings.

That morbid film started replaying Monday morning when a lone shooter entered Building 197 in the Washington Navy Yard carrying weapons and rained down carnage, killing 12 people and wounding several others, before being gunned down himself. President Barack Obama and lawmakers offered their condolences for “yet another mass shooting;” vigils were held for the victims.

Details slowly trickled out from law enforcement officials, sounding eerily familiar -- Aaron Alexis had a history of mental illness; he had been in trouble with the law; at least one of the guns he used was purchased legally.

But even as tentative rumblings began anew about why disturbed individuals could access firearms so easily and the state of the nation’s patchwork gun laws, the conclusion seemed foregone a quick 24 hours after it had all started.

Public and political consensus hardened around the fact that if the slaughter of schoolchildren earlier this year in Newtown, Conn. was not a tipping point, a rampage at a naval base, within sight of the Capitol and with middle-aged victims, would also not be enough to move the needle on any policy measures intended to curb gun violence.

 “There’s a familiarity about the story we heard yesterday, and it’s really frustrating to watch it happen over and over again, knowing it happened nine months ago, and we tried really hard to use that as an impetus for a policy change,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at the center-left think tank Third Way. “We know these things are going to continue to happen.”

Hatalsky added that Newtown had the effect of “lowering the bar on what our shock value is.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid corroborated that nothing had changed Tuesday afternoon when asked if there would be a renewed push to bring the legislation back or try for another narrower effort around mental illness.

“We’re going to move this up as quickly as we can but we’ve got to have the votes first,” Reid said. “We don’t have the votes. I hope we get them, but we don’t have them now.”

Former New York City and Boston Police Commissioner Bill Bratton similarly, in discussing Monday’s events on NBC News, said that security personnel would be best served by being prepared to handle such scenarios.

“It is an unfortunate fact of American life that you have to go through that type of training,” Bratton said.

Americans were traumatized by the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, which killed 15 including the shooters, but were progressively less stunned by similar incidences for the next decade, said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York Cortland who has extensively researched gun policies. The sheer horror of the Newtown massacre jolted the public consciousness again, but now most people are sliding back into complacency. Each subsequent tragedy has less of a chance to change the stubborn politics around gun control.

“The public becomes immunized from these terrible events,” Spitzer said. “The shock subsides, people turn to other things, and that leaves the field to gun rights organizations which are highly motivated, well-organized and experienced. In politics, it's easier to play defense than offense.”

Indeed, since the Newtown shootings in January, bipartisan background check legislation failed to clear the Senate, two Democratic state senators in moderate Colorado were recalled for supporting a universal background check law and the powerful National Rifle Association has shown no signs of blinking on their stances, even in the face of overwhelming public support for some gun control measures. Obama has forged ahead with 25 executive actions, while lamenting the lack of congressional support to get more comprehensive reforms passed.

The refrain around D.C. in the wake of the shooting was resignation that these things are bound to happen.

“If someone wants to get in anywhere and kill someone, they’re going to do it,” said Lori Tolliver, 39, from Statesville, N.C., as she came out of the National Archives, where the right to bear arms is codified in the original U.S. Constitution. “If you have it in your mind to do it, you’re going to do it."

Eddie Weingart, however, can’t turn his back on the cause. His mother died at the hands of a gunman when he was just two years old, and he’s been involved in gun control advocacy since he was a teenager. Two months after Newtown, he formed the local organization Project to End Gun Violence to keep the pressure on state and federal lawmakers.

At a rally at Freedom Plaza Monday night after the Navy Yard shooting, Weingart lamented a society where “mass shootings are becoming almost as American as apple pie and baseball,” occurring at movie theaters, places of worship, schools, political rallies, universities, military bases and in shopping center parking lots, all within the last three years.

“Our peace and security are so disrupted on a regular basis,” Weingart said later in an interview with Al Jazeera America. “Americans are feeling a lack of shock and that is one of the most alarming aspects of these shootings.”

Wilson Dizard contributed to this report

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