National leaders have released statement after statement today expressing condolences for the victims of last night’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. But no politicians — apart from, notably, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — has called for an increase in focus on gun laws.
That silence is a relatively recent product of decades of heated gun debates, and of gun rights’ activists largely winning an argument over whether such massacres should be reflexively blamed on the weapons. There hasn’t been major new gun control legislation since 1994, and Bill Clinton’s efforts to expand gun control in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings fizzled. In interviews, even gun control advocates said such discussion can seem exploitative; it can also be premature in the midst of developing news about the identity of the shooter, the victims, and the motive.
“I know in the past when I worked in [Senator Chuck] Schumer’s office, when there would be a crime such as this, our first questions would be what kind of guns, how did the person get the gun, did the person get it at a gun market,” said Jim Kessler, formerly of Americans for Gun Safety. “Not every one of these crimes has a nexus with a gun law that needs to be corrected.”
Kessler said crimes like these often “take on unique personalities” in the days and weeks after the event, and politicians don’t want to make a bad call on what that personality will be.
“The Giffords shooting was about the dialogue in America,” Kessler said, referring to last year’s attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “Virginia Tech became about mental health. Some previous ones were about assault weapons.”
“It’s hard to predict on the first day exactly the personality it’s going to take, and a lot of times it has to do with who the victims are and who the perpetrator is,” Kessler said.
The gun control movement is, in fact, split on this question. During his weekly radio address, the blunt New York mayor said, “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.”
“No matter where you stand on the Second Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them concretely, not just in generalities – specifically what are they going to do about guns?” Bloomberg said.
Most other politicians have been more reticent. President Obama didn’t refer to gun laws during his address in Florida this morning, nor did Mitt Romney in New Hampshire.
And some gun control advocates, this is a source of frustration.
“I don’t know if there’s any tragedy, no matter how horrific, that could make the house act on gun laws,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
He criticized Obama for not addressing the issue. “The sad thing is that Obama knows better,” Everitt said. “When he was campaigning he did support reinstituting the assault weapons ban. Among the four guns was an AK-47 style rifle.”
Dan Gross, president of The Brady Campaign, released a statement this morning dismissing politicians’ words of condolence and demanding action.
“This tragedy is another grim reminder that guns are the enablers of mass killers and that our nation pays an unacceptable price for our failure to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” Gross said.
“As someone who has suffered the lasting impact of gun violence, and President of Brady, I can tell you that we don’t want sympathy. We want action.”
On the other side of the gun control debate, there’s been either a resistance to talking about gun laws, just like on the left, or support of concealed carry laws. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert this morning: “It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “NRA will not have any further comment until all the facts are known.”