Media pundits never seem to tire of writing gun violence prevention's obituary. They seem determined to create a conventional wisdom that no progress on the issue is possible, and shut down any effort to renew a dialogue on public safety legislation that has gone quiet in the halls of Congress despite overwhelming public support for stronger gun laws.
Last week it was the recall election defeats of two Colorado state senators who had supported stronger gun laws that caused some commentators to declare "The Death of Gun Control." They didn't let the facts stand in their way -- the gun laws in question were broadly popular statewide, the recall turnout was extremely low, and efforts by conservatives to recall other pro-gun safety legislators failed. In years past, media have that the power of the National Rifle Association would prevent stronger gun laws from getting consideration.
Now pundits are claiming that comments from the Obama administration following the Navy Yard shooting, deemed insufficiently robust in their calls for stronger laws, mean "RIP for gun control," in the words of The Washington Post's Dana Milbank.
Milbank writes in his September 17 column that "President Obama didn't even try to use the massacre at the Washington Navy Yard to revive the gun-control debate," apparently considering Obama's statement in response to the attack that his administration will "do everything that we can to try to prevent" future tragedies insufficiently specific. In fact, it's not appreciably less specific than his remarks in response to the Sandy Hook shooting, in which he did not lay out any policy goals but said only that "we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
One tea leaf Milbank reads to bolster his case that the gun violence prevention debate is over is a selective quotation of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:
At the White House on Tuesday, the Associated Press's Julie Pace noted Obama's subdued response to the shooting and asked if "maybe there's some sort of numbness among the public since these shootings have happened so frequently." Another questioner asked if there's "an exhaustion and an acceptance that this is the new normal."
Press secretary Jay Carney said the president "doesn't accept that it's the new normal."
Maybe not. But the loss of hope for gun control is becoming a durable abnormal.
In fact, a fuller account of Carney's remarks shows that he said the Obama administration would continue to use executive action to address gun violence (the White House announced two new executive actions on gun violence on August 29) and that the administration "continue[s] to call on Congress to listen to the voices of their constituents and legislate accordingly."
From the September 17 press briefing:
Q Jay, does the President -- this is -- people have gone through this -- the fourth major shooting in the last year, mass shooting. Does the President believe that -- does he want to lead another conversation, whether it's on guns, mental health, video game violence -- does he want to lead another conversation on this, sort of what happened after Newtown? Or to sort of follow up on Julie's question, is there an exhaustion and an acceptance that this is the new normal?
MR. CARNEY: Well, he doesn't accept that it's the new normal. He believes that Americans don't and can't accept that. And he continues, as we did just a couple of weeks ago, to press forward in doing what he can through his executive powers to take measures to reduce gun violence, common-sense measures, acknowledging, as he did in the beginning and as he does today, that some of this requires congressional action. And we continue to call on Congress to listen to the voices of their constituents and legislate accordingly.
Milbank also highlights the recall of the Colorado state senators in order to suggest that state-level efforts to strengthen gun laws are futile:
Days earlier in Colorado, voters tossed out two state senators because they had supported laws requiring background checks for gun transfers and limiting the capacity of ammunition clips. That dashed hopes that gun-control advances could be made in the states if not in Washington.
This analysis ignores that Colorado's stronger gun laws -- expanded background checks and a 15-round limitation on magazine size -- remain in effect despite the recall. So does gun violence prevention legislation enacted in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland in the past year, states in which no legislators have been recalled.
History shows that the fight for stronger gun laws can take time to come to fruition. The Brady Handgun Prevention Act was first introduced in 1987 but was not signed into law until 1994, nearly 13 years after its namesake Jim Brady was shot during an attack on President Reagan. That's an eternity in pundit years, where conventional wisdom can set in an instant and last until a new fact comes along and overturns it.