Analysis: Another shooting — close to home — and still no change in Washington’s gun debate. Here’s why

Nothing changed after moviegoers were slaughtered in Aurora. Nothing changed after children were massacred in Newtown, after worshipers were killed inside a church in Charleston, after office workers were mowed down at a holiday party in San Bernardino.

And even though members of Congress were attacked Wednesday by a gunman on a ball field just outside the capital, nothing is likely to change in the Washington debate over gun control, save the addition of Alexandria to the list of blood-soaked postmarks.

The two sides of the debate are simply too dug in, the political forces too firmly entrenched, the worldview of opposing sides so vastly different it is impossible to see how the gulf narrows even slightly, however close to home the latest attack.


Underscoring that notion, the one thing both sides shared after the latest mass shooting was the capacity to look at precisely the same event and see it in a way that buttressed diametrically opposing views.

For those demanding a crackdown on guns, the attack in Virginia showed the danger of promiscuous laws that let a political malcontent turn his rage into actions spoken through the barrel of an assault-style rifle.

For those opposing stiffer laws, the fact the carnage was not far worse testified to an abiding view that, in the words of a popular adage, the most effective thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

“They shot the shooter,” Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, one of the GOP lawmakers targeted during softball practice, said of the police officers who returned fire and, ultimately, killed James T. Hodgkinson. “The security detail saved a lot of lives because they attacked the shooter.”

If anything, some Republican lawmakers said, the incident encouraged them to start packing their own firearm and look for ways to make guns more widely accessible, not less.

The debate over guns and gun control in many ways distills the very essence of politics today, where opposing sides don’t simply differ on philosophical or ideological grounds but fail to agree on even the basic facts.

It also underscores the power of one of the country’s mightiest special-interest groups, the National Rifle Assn., and its hold over Republican lawmakers whose greatest fear is not losing an election to a Democrat but, given gerrymandering, a Republican primary opponent with an even harder-line view on guns.

That is one reason Congress has failed to pass a law requiring universal background checks, even though the overwhelmingly majority of Americans express their support. Notwithstanding that fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t vote in individual GOP primaries.

The sway of the NRA and other groups opposing tougher gun laws is also a function of one of the most fundamental tenets of politics: intensity matters far more than raw numbers.

Supporters of unfettered gun rights may be “a minority of the population but they have a degree of loyalty and emotional attachment to their movement that isn’t reflected on the opposing side,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at State University of New York at Cortland.

“It’s only when the mass shooting occurs that the public pays real attention,” said Spitzer, who has written five books on gun policy. “But the sentiment doesn’t last long. Most people turn their attention back to other things, as does the media, and soon it’s back to business as usual.”

Indeed, despite the emotional outcry that has followed every headline-grabbing attack, Republicans in Congress have thwarted each major gun control effort attempted in the last several years. The most recent came after the killing last June of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

With President Trump in the White House, thanks in no small part to the staunch support of the NRA, congressional Democrats have virtually thrown up their hands.

As a result, pro-gun control groups have increasingly turned their efforts to the state and local levels, where the political forces on either side are less formidable.

But the divide over guns is more then political. It is also cultural, and rooted in values both sides hold deep and unshakable.

“One side sees firearms essentially as instruments of evil,” said Harry Wilson of Virginia’s Roanoke University, who has also written extensively on gun issues. “On the other side are people who associate them with a sense of freedom, of individualism … [and] also the right to self-defense.”

Therein lies perhaps the most important reason the gun debate has reached this impasse.

It is one thing to forge a political agreement on a matter that is pliable and open to negotiation. It is another to surrender what some deem a natural, inalienable right.

With no room for compromise, even Wednesday’s attack directly aimed at Republican members of Congress won’t bring about political change.

@markzbarabak on Twitter


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