Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

Mass shootings unlikely to sway 2016 presidential race

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pushed reform, but momentum scant in Congress for new laws

Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled a strategy to strengthen federal firearm laws, a week after a mass shooting killed nine people in Oregon. The Democrats’ plan includes tightening background check rules, closing loopholes and toughening punishments for weapons trafficking across state lines.

“We here today agree on three principles for action, principles which most Americans can agree on,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in Washington, D.C., at a news conference announcing the effort.

The shooter who killed nine people and wounded nine more at Umpqua Community College in the southwestern Oregon city of Roseburg on Oct. 1 had 13 firearms in his possession, a fact that added fuel to the gun control debate. But even though the issue tends to dominate speeches and headlines after mass shootings, analysts say it is likely to fade from effective political reality, even as the 2016 presidential race heats up. 

Republicans in the House and Senate have largely maintained their longtime united front opposing new limits on gun ownership after the Oregon shooting, but the incident has prompted renewed calls for action from Democratic presidential primary candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who are currently the Democrats’ two top-polling candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential race. 

"As a nation, we must do everything we can to put an end to this awful epidemic of senseless slaughter," Sanders office said in a statement the day of the shooting. 

"How many people have to die before we actually act, before we come together as a nation?" Clinton said this week in New Hampshire, according to a Reuters report. 

But despite all the sound and fury on the campaign trail and Capitol Hill, political and legal experts said that the passage of new federal gun control laws looks unlikely  — and that even another mass killing would be unlikely to put much overwhelming pressure on 2016 candidates to commit to taking major, concrete steps toward change. 

“Actually, mass shootings tend to produce only very temporary headlines. So there is not any clear indication that mass shooting will continue to be a salient issue for the primary or general [elections],” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

“And even before the Oregon shooting, Clinton had signaled that she will advocate for gun control measures. It remains to be seen whether that will actually be a real priority for her campaign,” Sides added.

Although Sanders has voted against some regulations on guns, and his state has relatively relaxed laws, he stood with fellow Democrats on Thursday and endorsed their new plan. His campaign has supported tougher background checks, as has Clinton’s. Analysts said that whether or not he tacks closer to his rival’s harder stance depends on one factor.

“Only if it thinks it will get him more votes,” said Craig Whitney, author of the book “Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.”

“And same for Hillary,” Whitney said. “That’s the only thing that gets presidential candidates to make proposals: ‘Can I get elected if I take a strong position on this?’”

Whitney, who said he is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), added that given the inability of Congress to pass new gun control measures, he has more hope that legislation meant to reduce gun deaths would come from state and local lawmakers. 

He said that the political narrative around mass shootings can actually be a boon to gun rights groups because it increases donations. 

“The NRA scares people who have guns already by telling them that if Hillary Clinton gets elected, she will take your guns, so give us money to make sure doesn’t win,” Whitney said.

The NRA’s revenue jumped by 11 percent after the December 2012 elementary school massacre that killed 26 in Newtown, Connecticut, the New York Daily News reported in February.

Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, a lobbying group, told Al Jazeera in an email that President Barack Obama "proudly admits that he wants to politicize these horrific events to push his gun control agenda — and his allies in Congress are happy to do his bidding."

"If Obama and gun control advocates were serious, they would address the underlying issue of America’s broken mental health system," he said. "Instead, they push gun control initiatives that would not have prevented any of the tragedies they seek to exploit."

"In virtually every one of these situations, the murderer passed President Obama’s background check, including the individual in Oregon. The other consistent fact is that there were red flags that were ignored."

As is often true in discussions of gun control, it is unclear who is expected to spot the red flag, and act upon the warning. 

Even in Roseburg, support for gun rights remains strong after the shooting, The New York Times reported on Oct. 7 from the rural town of 22,000 people

“It’s opened my eyes,” the report quoted J.J. Vicari, 19, an Umpqua Community College student who survived the massacre by hiding under a desk, as saying. “I want to have a gun in the house to protect myself, to protect the people I’m with. I’m sure I’ll have a normal life and never have to go through anything like this, but I want to be sure."

Other Roseburg residents also said they now plan to arm themselves, the report said. 

Opposing that idea is Everytown For Gun Safety, a coalition of activists formed in 2014. 

Colin Goddard — the group’s senior policy advocate and a wounded survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 and injured 17 — expressed more optimism that politicians will start putting up a stronger front for regulation. He said they would find support among “single-issue” voters.

“The gun lobby has done a good job of making this thing black and white: You’re pro-gun or anti-gun. The new American majority that’s waking up is realizing that you can be both for the Second Amendment and for keeping guns away from dangerous people,” Goddard said.

He argued that the language of the debate disadvantages advocates for stricter regulation. For example, he said that when presented with the terms “background checks” or “gun trafficking,” more people say they support regulation than they do when the question uses the phrase “gun control.” 

“For some people, ‘gun control’ means the enslavement of the American population,” he said. “The term ‘gun control’ is useless.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter