Lawmakers, weary from the emotional fight and failure to get a bill to enhance background checks for gun sales off the Senate floor two years ago, seem resigned to the view that if the Sandy Hook school massacre cannot move Congress, the church shooting would not, either.

Share story

WASHINGTON — After the fatal shootings at a landmark black church in Charleston, S.C., Sen. Joe Manchin III, who sponsored gun-safety legislation that failed in Congress two years ago, released a statement lamenting “the nine souls who were lost.”

One word the West Virginia Democrat did not use was guns.

Neither did the Twitter message of Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., head of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the liberal minority leader, visibly shaken, said nothing publicly about guns Thursday. Nor did Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., who was the co-author of Manchin’s legislation.

Two and a half years after the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., galvanized some lawmakers to seek modest gun-control legislation, the prospects now are even more remote.

Lawmakers, weary from the emotional fight and failure to get a bill to enhance background checks for gun sales off the Senate floor two years ago, seem resigned to the view that if 20 children killed at a school cannot move Congress, nine black men and women shot dead by a white man during Bible study will not, either.

That reality was summed up by President Obama — tired from his multiple mournful treks to his lectern speaking of gun deaths — on Thursday afternoon. But recognizing that he sounded more resigned than he intended, Obama on Friday offered a more vigorous call for gun control during a speech in San Francisco.

“If Congress had passed some common-sense gun-safety reforms after Newtown, after a group of children had been gunned down in their own classroom — reforms that 90 percent of the American people supported — we wouldn’t have prevented every act of violence, or even most,” Obama said.

“We don’t know if it would have prevented what happened in Charleston. No reform can guarantee the elimination of violence. But we might still have some more Americans with us.”

Obama added: “You don’t see murder on this kind of scale with this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation on earth. Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people. What’s different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns. And so I refuse to act as if this is the new normal.”

The reality is closer to Obama’s initial comments at the White House on Thursday, when he said that today’s “politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now.” A variety of factors make this so.

Since the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Congress has added more pro-gun lawmakers to its ranks.

Although roughly a dozen states have passed major gun-control legislation in the intervening years, even more have loosened gun restrictions. Obama, who convened his top aides in the Oval Office the night of the Newtown shootings to discuss pushing for new gun laws, has put far more muscle into legislation where he can find common ground with Republicans — such as his trade package currently before Congress — than face further frustration.

The issue of gun violence has also been overshadowed by a focus on the nation’s racial tensions after a series of killings of unarmed black men and boys by police, tensions underscored by what appear to be racist motivations of the man charged in the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday night.

In Charleston on Thursday, a half-block from the church where the shootings occurred, Jack Logan unfurled a banner that read, “Put Down the Guns, Young People.” Jareem Brady, 42, stood talking next to Logan’s banner, but said racial discrimination was a bigger issue than guns.

“That’s what this is about,” he said.

The silence is frustrating to some lawmakers. “Justified or not, there has traditionally been a reluctance to talk about policy in the 24 hours after a massive tragedy,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., who continues to advocate for gun legislation. “I really believe that our silence is making us complicit in these murders.”

Americans have sent mixed messages on guns.

A Pew survey last year showed that 52 percent of Americans said they thought it was important to protect gun-ownership rights. That figure was up from 29 percent in 2000. In a 2013 poll, Pew found that nearly 75 percent of respondents supported expansion of background checks, which has been the focus of much federal and state legislation.

“Sen. Murphy recently introduced legislation to help states develop licensing programs similar to Connecticut’s relatively new handgun-purchasing law, which helps prevent those who would not pass a background check from buying guns.

Thompson, the California Democrat, said he was waiting to address guns publicly. “I think it is important to pay respect to the victims,” he said, adding: “I will never stop working on gun issues.”

But most lawmakers have turned to mental-health legislation, including Murphy, who is working with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., on a bill to overhaul the nation’s mental-health programs. Both men have also teamed up with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who just introduced a mental-health bill of his own, an area where there will likely be broad, bipartisan support in Congress.

“There have been too many days since December 2012 that have brought that sinking feeling back to my stomach,” Sen. Murphy said, referring to Sandy Hook.

He added: “I never feel lonely on issues related to gun violence because 90 percent of the American people agree with me … There is a reckoning. I just can’t tell you how we get there.”