Five-odd months ago, right before Senate Republicans filibustered the last-ditch gun safety bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, a member of the Obama administration tried to convince me that all was not lost. The post-Sandy Hook grasping for a bill, he said, was just the beginning of a process. If it failed, it failed. Advocates would be ready the next time that a gunman opened fire on a crowd.
That theory was totally impolitic but widely shared. It was also deeply flawed. After Toomey’s April effort failed, a spokesman helplessly suggested that there’d “have to be a change in the atmosphere to yield a different outcome.” Tuesday, in a statement, Toomey declared that the Navy Yard shooting had failed to move anyone. “The Senate spoke on this issue and we came up five votes short,” he said. “It is unclear if [this] tragedy changes the atmosphere sufficiently to yield a different outcome.”
Spoiler: It doesn’t! If anything was going to roil Congress enough to bring a gun control bill up for a vote, it would be something like a popular member of their ranks being shot in the head. That happened two and a half years ago. Sure, the Sandy Hook massacre scrambled gun control politics, ending years of détente between the NRA and scared Democrats. That led to new gun laws in four states, but looser gun laws in 18 other states, most of them allowing concealed-carry in places where it had been heretofore banned. And it led to the NRA-backed defeat of two Democratic state senators in Colorado, the only Western state that passed restrictions.
Gun safety advocates aren’t ready with an off-the-shelf bill. Not one that would have prevented the shooting spree at the Navy Yard, anyway. We know now that Aaron Alexis traveled to a Virginia gun shop on Saturday, and tested out an AR-15. He didn’t buy the weapon; state law prohibits the sale of such guns to non-Virginians without additional documentation.* Alexis bought a shotgun, something state law permitted him (or anyone who passed a background check) to do without a permit. Nothing in the Manchin-Toomey bill would have affected this timeline. No one in 48 hours has proposed a law that would make it tougher to buy a shotgun. Forget that—it’s nigh-official administration policy that people should buy shotguns if they want to ward off brigands.
Gun rights activists know what they’re doing. It took nanoseconds for conservatives to settle upon a theory for the Navy Yard killings: Aaron Alexis would have been stopped cold had Bill Clinton not restricted guns on military bases. Gun Owners of America, the group reporters call when the NRA won’t answer, pushed that argument immediately. The Media Research Center found a man who claimed to have a son “at Marine barracks, at the Navy Yard yesterday” who bemoaned that they could have shot Alexis “if [they] had the ammunition.” John Lott, the conservative author of More Guns, Less Crime, a ready pro-gun pundit when violence breaks out, has spent the last 48 hours asking questions like “if [the] DC Navy Yard Shooter could get on a military base using someone else’s ID, how could background checks have stopped him from buying a gun?”
We haven’t heard much carping about “violent video games” yet, but like Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, Aaron Alexis was fond of the hyper-realistic home console games that allow you to shoot holes through CGI people. Gun rights advocates, the NRA included, have a script, and it works, even when the other side is disengaged. The NRA’s School Shield program, its much-derided response to Sandy Hook, is quietly succeeding at placing armed guards at schools and campuses.
Gun safety advocates don’t know what they’re doing. The first post-Navy Yard cry for gun safety came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’s written multiple, fruitless assault weapons bans. “Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country,” she said Monday. “We must do more to stop this endless loss of life.” One day later, approached by Politico, Feinstein admitted that she was “not optimistic right now” and not pushing for a vote because “I don’t want another loss if that’s the case.”
Democrats can’t credibly threaten to pass a bill. They can’t even sound credible when they talk about the need for one. On MSNBC last night, recalled Colorado Sen. Angela Giron argued that “you couldn’t have any more armed people than were there” at Navy Yard. That wasn’t true. The newest political martyr of the gun safety cause had accidentally made the argument for letting people carry guns into more workplaces.
The budget debate will consume all of Washington’s time. The post-Sandy Hook gun control push came after a re-elected Barack Obama and Congress had punted debt and health care fights into the fall—i.e., to right now. The White House’s legislative liaisons have spent weeks consumed with wrangling Syria votes and votes for Larry Summers, neither of which they ended up needing, and now they’re pivoting to the continuing resolution that needs to pass this month. Democratic aides in the Senate put it like this: Who wants to reopen another highly divisive front in an unwinnable partisan war when they’re already careening into two or three skirmishes?
Almost nobody does. The “maybe after the next shooting” theory of gun safety always had some holes.
*Correction, Sept. 20, 2013: This article originally stated that Aaron Alexis was prevented from buying an AR-15 because of a state law that prohibits the sale of such weapons to nonresidents. In fact, Virginia permits nonresidents to purchase AR-15s if they have sufficient documentation. (Return to the corrected sentence.)