Navy Yard shooting to spur gun debate — but little action likely

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
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Flowers, flags and a child's drawing are pictured at a makeshift memorial outside the Navy Yard two days after a gunman killed 12 people before police shot him dead, in Washington, September 18, 2013. U.S. lawmakers are calling for a review into how Aaron Alexis, the suspected shooter in Monday's rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, received and maintained a security clearance, despite a history of violent episodes. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Flowers, flags and a child's drawing are pictured at a makeshift memorial outside the Navy Yard after a gunman killed 12 people, in Washington

Congress is about as likely to impose firecracker control after a man lobbed some at the White House on Monday as lawmakers are to tighten gun laws after the slaughter of 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., only a few hours earlier.

That’s the grim feeling among profoundly frustrated gun-control advocates and their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. They say privately that if the Christmastime massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., last year couldn’t spur action on modest steps to combat gun violence, what chance does the killing of a dozen adults have?

"We don’t have the votes. I hope to get them, but we don’t have them now," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday when asked if the Senate would revisit a bill to tighten background checks after Monday's shootings. The Senate rejected a similar measure in April.

That measure failed by five votes — Reid switched his “yes” vote to “no” in a procedural move that permits him to bring the proposal up again. On Tuesday, Reid said that he might consider revisiting a separate, limited bill that would exclusively address mental health issues.

“Anything we can do to focus attention on the senseless killings that take place,” Reid said. “That’s something we will look at.”

On Monday, the tone of frustration with Congress' inaction on gun legislation came from the very top, as President Barack Obama deplored that “we are confronting yet another mass shooting.”

“We're going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to try to prevent them,” he added.

Obama made no mention of another push in Congress — and White House press secretary Jay Carney added to the impression of congressional stalemate at his briefing not long afterward.

“We will continue to work to take action to reduce gun violence in this country through executive action, and hopefully Congress will take action to reduce gun violence as well,” Carney told reporters.

Democrats facing an uphill re-election fight in the 2014 midterm elections “would rather see executive action on this than walk the plank with another vote on something that won’t go anywhere in the House,” said another Democratic congressional aide, who also requested anonymity to discuss the tragedy’s political dimensions.

That was the reality in Congress as about 75 gun-control advocates organized by the Newtown Action Alliance were poised to arrive in Washington around noon on Tuesday for a long-scheduled event urging congressional action on the issue.

The group had planned to attend a Tuesday Senate subcommittee hearing on "stand your ground" self-defense laws, but that hearing was postponed indefinitely on Monday due to the Navy Yard shootings. To mark the nine-month anniversary of the Newtown shootings, the advocates — including family members of victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Virginia Tech — will hold a press conference on Wednesday and meet with lawmakers to pressure them to pass gun-control legislation.

Dave Ackert, the founder of the Newtown Action Alliance, said they are not "optimistic" that gun laws will change any time soon, but they hope gun control will now again at least become a matter of debate.

"Maybe now that it came in their backyard it will be harder for a lot of these lawmakers to keep looking the other way. That's the hope anyway," Ackert told Yahoo News.

Some officials reflected on the mass shootings since Obama took office in January 2009 — at places such as Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek and Newtown.

“We are becoming far too familiar with senseless, tragic violence," West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller said in a statement. “This is the seventh shooting since 2009, and these repeated incidents demand our attention."

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime advocate for tightening federal gun laws, called on lawmakers to resume a debate over gun control.

“When will enough be enough? Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country. We must do more to stop this endless loss of life,” she said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Feinstein authored a bill in response to the mass shootings in Newtown that would have banned "assault weapons," but the Senate rejected the proposal before going on to vote down the separate measure that sought to expand background checks.

And Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, pressed Congress to do something — but did not signal any aggressive new push.

“While it is too early to know what policies might have prevented this latest tragedy, we do know that policies that present a real opportunity to save lives sit stalled in Congress,” Gross said. “As long as our leaders in Congress ignore the will of the people and do not listen to those voices, we will hold them accountable. We hope Congress will listen to the voice of the people and take up legislation that will create a safer America."

But what might that legislation look like? If early reports are true, the suspect, Aaron Alexis, had a violent past that included allegedly firing his gun through a neighbor’s ceiling, and he was being treated for mental illness. But under existing laws he could purchase firearms and had the necessary clearance as a Defense Department contractor to gain access to the Navy Yard.

Lawmakers have seemed more willing to tackle issues related to security clearances and contractors — perhaps a side effect of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s sweeping revelations about American surveillance. And they also have signaled a willingness to expand mental health treatment. Neither is likely to draw the kind of forceful lobbying campaign like the National Rifle Association’s no-holds-barred blitz after Newtown.

Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said on Tuesday at an event hosted by Politico that the Navy Yard suspect was “somebody who had a record of instability and certainly should have been, I think, subject to closer scrutiny.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R.-Calif., said he had received a Defense Department inspector general report on contractor access to Navy installations.
“The report details critical flaws in the practice of contracting access control for military installations to non-governmental personnel,” he said in a statement. “While the timing of the delivery of this report was coincidental, I believe it to be relevant to physical security on military installations and to the committee's hearing tomorrow on the impact of defense cuts.”

But gun rights advocates are sure to advance the argument that the solution isn’t more laws, it’s enforcement of existing laws. The Navy Yard suspect violated several gun-related Washington, D.C., laws, ABC News noted.

And David Kopel, adjunct professor of law at Denver University and an analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute think tank, said Alexis should have faced felony convictions for his previous gun-related wrongdoing.

"This was the case of another completely preventable mass murder that could have been stopped if we had a more effective criminal justice system and mental health system," Kopel told Yahoo News.

Liz Goodwin and Chris Moody contributed to this report.