By Nicole Cobler and Todd J. Gillman / 11.06.2017
The church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, reopened a gun control debate that has raged for decades, erupting with fresh vigor with each new tragedy.
Five weeks have passed between a rampage in Las Vegas left 58 people dead, and the arguments and battle lines were still echoing in Congress. But the history of mass shootings in America suggests that this one — the worst in modern Texas history — won’t lead to changes, either.
Gun control advocates predicted that Las Vegas would be a turning point for restrictions on guns — in particular on bump stocks, a device found in the shooter’s hotel room that allows rifles to be fired at nearly automatic rates.
It hasn’t so far. A bipartisan push to ban bump stocks seems to have stalled in Congress. The House has yet to hold a committee hearing.
Within hours of Sunday’s shooting, Democratic lawmakers renewed their pleas for action aimed at limiting the damage one gunman can inflict.
“The shooter turned his gun on people — kids — in a place of worship. America is in the grips of a gun violence crisis. Congress must act,” tweeted Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the party’s deputy Senate leader.
Gun control advocates, including Barack Obama when he was president, have long chafed at the standard formulation provided by politicians in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting: calls for thoughts and prayers.
The National Rifle Association and other gun advocacy groups held off making public comments in the hours after the Sutherland shooting. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was quick to push back against calls to curb access to guns, and predicted that no legal restrictions would stop such attacks.
“This is going to happen again,” he told Fox News on Sunday, arguing that anyone willing to commit murder is also willing to violate gun laws, and that Texas’ concealed carry law reduces the risk of mass murders. “If it’s a place where somebody has the ability to carry, there’s always the opportunity that gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people.”
The White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan were among the national leaders offering prayers.
President Donald Trump, traveling in Japan, called the “horrible and murderous attack” an “act of evil.” He spoke with Gov. Greg Abbott hours earlier and received regular updates from aides.
“All of America is praying to God to help the wounded and the families of the victims. We will never, ever, leave their side, ever,” the president said.
As quickly as “thoughts and prayers” poured out, so did frustration at that message, which gun control advocates view as a method of deflection even as shootings grow more deadly.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a group that demands gun restrictions, blasted Abbott and other defenders of gun rights. And she noted the irony of invoking the power of prayer after a massacre at a church.
“If thoughts and prayers alone prevented gun violence, we wouldn’t be shot in places of worship,” she tweeted.
Abbott’s 2014 Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, tweaked him Sunday night for so ardently supporting gun rights that two years ago he encouraged Texans to buy more guns because California claimed bragging rights as the state with the most per capita purchases. That might stir liberals but isn’t likely to boost the political price in Texas for supporting gun rights.
After the Vegas shooting, Republicans turned aside pleas for action as premature. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking member of the Senate, said “politicizing this tragedy is beyond disgusting,” and like other Republicans, he waited days before addressing Democrats’ calls for gun restrictions.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey was among the Democrats ramping up pressure Sunday night. “We are not powerless to reduce gun violence in our nation. Congress must act,” he tweeted.
But even some lawmakers who have long pushed for restrictions avoided taking the issue head-on Sunday — to avoid pre-emptive criticism of anyone seen to be politicizing a tragedy.
“This horrific act against innocent people at a place of worship leaves yet another community reeling from the heartache and devastation caused by gun violence,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who made no mention of her longstanding desire for restrictions on certain firearms. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, the first responders, and the people of this small community who are now reeling from this senseless attack.”
After the Las Vegas attack, the NRA, the White House and many high-profile Republicans initially called for a crackdown on bump stocks, but later shifted the focus from federal legislation to pressuring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for a regulatory approach.
ATF is responsible for making classification decisions on firearms. It approved the bump stock in 2010, deeming it a lawful accessory, rather than a modification that turns a lawful weapon into an unlawful automatic weapon.
Even public attention on the aftermarket device has dwindled. Google trends search data on “bump stocks” dropped back to pre-shooting levels two weeks after the Las Vegas massacre, CNN reported.
To the dismay of those calling for restrictions, that pattern has played out for years after every mass shooting.
Gun control advocates had hoped that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., might provide the momentum needed to expand background checks and ban assault weapons. But Congress rejected nearly every gun control measure proposed in the aftermath of the tragedy and since then.
Since Sandy Hook, where a gunman killed 20 children and seven adults, 27 states have passed 93 laws expanding gun rights.
In Texas, gun owners now can openly tote their handguns and carry concealed guns onto public university campuses.
And Sunday’s shooting brought back memories of the June 2015 church shooting in Charleston at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine people were killed by 21-year-old Dylann Roof.
Democrats called for regulations that would close the loophole that allowed Roof to buy a pistol despite a recent arrest on a felony drug charge. A measure, known as the Background Check Completion Act, has yet to gather enough support to make it through the House or Senate.
Now, Congress is poised to vote on the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, or SHARE, which includes a provision to ease restrictions on silencers. Sport hunters, with backing from lawmakers in both parties, have pushed the measure as a way to protect hunters’ hearing. Critics say that muffling the sound of firearms would make it harder for police and victims to detect the source of an attack and could have made the Las Vegas massacre even worse.
The bill was delayed after a shooter fired on Republican lawmakers at a congressional baseball practice in June. The bill made it through committee but has not been scheduled for a vote by the full House.
And the Trump administration is considering shifting oversight of gun exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department, treating guns more like commodities and less like weapons.
At the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Executive Director Josh Horwitz voiced frustration Sunday at the lack of progress since the Las Vegas massacre — and the artful deflections used by gun rights advocates and their allies in Congress.
“We went through the worst mass shooting in modern American history just over a month ago. Politicians offered their ‘thoughts and prayers’ tweets,” he said. “This uniquely American cycle must stop. Americans are slain in their houses of prayer and all their elected officials will offer is prayer. We must do more.”
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic Party, also spoke of thoughts and prayers after “the horrific shooting in Texas.” He alluded to a call for restrictions.
“In the last 35 days, we’ve witnessed two of the worst mass shootings in American history. We cannot allow those who wish us harm to so easily turn their hatred into violence,” he said.
To the dismay of gun control advocates, some deadly episodes result in increased public demand for expanded gun rights.
After the 1991 Luby’s massacre in Killeen, one of the survivors, Suzanna Gratia Huff — whose parents were among the 24 people killed by gunman George Hennard — was elected to the Legislature. She had left her gun in a purse in her car to avoid running afoul of state law, and in Austin she become a leading advocate of the right to concealed carry.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argued Sunday night that the growing list of mass shootings should prompt action in the other direction.
“We have a solemn obligation to the victims of Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown and the many tragic shootings that occur each day to respond not only with prayer and unwavering love, but with action,” she said.