Uncertainty about voter demands, impact of new laws has Congress in inertia over gun violence


It could be a tornado. A hurricane. An act of terrorism in Belgium or Paris.

And without fail, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis — and Ryan’s predecessor, House Speaker John Boehner —  would walk into their weekly press conference on Thursday or Friday morning and offer condolences. Typically speaking from a script, each would strike a somber tone. Extend prayers. Try to offer some hope.

Then it would be on to other subjects. The debt limit. Immigration. A government shutdown. Tax policy. Obamacare. President Trump’s latest tweet. You name it.

Pelosi’s press conference last Thursday appeared headed for the same direction. Murder and hell consumed a high school campus in Parkland, Florida, the day before. Most reporters in the House Radio/TV Gallery Studio suspected Pelosi would mirror her approach after other catastrophes. Some comments about the tragedy. More than likely questions about gun control and the 2016 House sit-in on firearms. Then there would be inquiries about the Senate immigration debate and the memo by Democrats on the House intelligence committee.

But everyone knew it would be a little different when Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., appeared.

In late 2012, Pelosi tapped Thompson to head the Democrats gun violence task force just after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Thompson knows something about guns. He’s a Vietnam veteran, a hunter and used to co-chair the Congressional Sportsman Caucus.

Thompson entered the room before Pelosi and briefly took a seat in the front row amid the reporters.

“Think I can get the first question?” he asked me, half-seriously.

Yes, there was much to be asked about DACA, the president’s budget, the Russia investigation and North Korea’s role in the Winter Olympics. But this wasn’t going to be a “one-and-out” event in Pelosi would speak about the calamity in Florida and shifted to other subjects.

Thompson’s presence meant one thing. This press conference was going to be about guns.

“Children are dying in our schools, in our communities, on our streets,” Pelosi said. “All this Congress has to say is, ‘Let’s have a moment of silence.’ So I sadly yield, with great gratitude, to Mr. Thompson and thank him for his leadership on this very important issue.”

In fact, Pelosi deflected most questions to her lieutenant. Thompson proceeded to upbraid Republicans for rarely entertaining gun safety measures in Congress.

“Every time we went to them, they had some excuse, some cockamamie excuse,” Thompson fumed.

He wound up fielding the first question. Congress approved a 10-year ban on assault weapons as a part of the 1994 crime bill. Lawmakers failed to re-up the assault the weapons prohibition when it sunset a decade later. So the question was does the sheer volume of assault weapons now floating around contribute to the latest spate of mass shootings?

“The issue of assault weapons is an issue that is much thornier to deal with. It is a harder hurdle. We can’t even get a hearing on the background check bill, so the idea that we would be able to do something on assault weapons, goes beyond a heavy lift,” Thompson replied.

To be fair, “assault weapon” can be a misleading term. Such arms are malleable and can be modified by any gun enthusiast. Some mass assassins don’t always deploy assault rifles to execute people. The gunman in the 2007 Virginia Tech slaughter used semi-automatic handguns. The “Rambo” aesthetic of some firearms doesn’t always reflect the capacity of the weapon. Cosmetic alterations to some guns can drastically shroud their killing power.

The push to restrict assault weapons hit Capitol Hill after a staggering 34 children and teacher were wounded at a 1989 Stockton, Calif., school with an AK-47. A 1991 mass shooting at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, built support in Congress for the assault weapons ban.

But it’s unclear if the 2004 sunset clause is to blame for what’s going on now. And, a bigger question, is would legislation curb such tragedies?

Gun control advocates religiously cite a parade of polls revealing a supermajority of Americans who favor weapon restrictions.

Here’s the problem: very few of those supporters are single-issue voters when it comes to firearms. The issue definitely doesn’t drive people to the polls. If that were the case, gun control voters would have been legion after Columbine/VirginiaTech/Newtown/San Bernardino/Orlando. Polls demonstrating people supporting gun control initiatives after a mass shooting is akin to “liking” something on Facebook or Twitter. Someone may “like” the idea at the time, but it doesn’t sway their vote.

At least not yet.

Crazed gunmen have shot two members of the House of Representatives in the past seven years and wounded multiple congressional aides. If Congress decided from within to alter gun policy, that would have happened a long time ago. And so far, change hasn’t happened from the outside either.

That said, some congressional Republicans privately concede they’re increasingly uncomfortable with their party rarely addressing the firearms issue outside of a moment of silence on the House or Senate floor. There’s concern that mass casualty events could turn against the GOP. A few Republicans say they’re worried about the general silence of their party on the issue.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had something to say about that after the Orlando shooting during his 15-hour floor speech in 2016.

“I really do worry that there is a quiet, unintentional message of endorsement that’s sent when we do nothing or when all we do is talk,” he said. “I think when there is not a collective condemnation with policy change from what is supposedly the world’s greatest deliberative body that there are very quiet cues that are picked up by people who are contemplating the unthinkable in their mind.”

Pelosi at last week’s presser cited how Ryan addressed gun violence after the Orlando shooting and following the Democratic sit-in on the House floor.

“The action taken by our Republican colleagues and leadership was to investigate who on the floor Periscoped, Facebooked, whatever technology they used, what was happening on the floor to the public,” she said.

Three of the mass shootings in less than two years unfolded in political battleground states: Nevada, off the Vegas Strip, and two in Florida, the Pulse nightclub massacre and now at the Parkland, Florida, high school. It’s possible mass casualty events could eventually impact voters in those areas.

Consider the way the Connecticut congressional delegation views firearms since Sandy Hook.

But will the issue get people to the polls now?

“Whose political survival is important than the safety of our children?” Pelosi asked. “I would rather pass gun safety legislation than win the election.”

Yet nobody knows if bills or laws would help.

Schools spend profusely on fire safety. They conduct regular fire drills. There are sprinkler and fire suppression systems. Fire alarms are placed throughout the buildings. Escape routes are clearly posted. This phenomena suggests that “gun control” may not be the best way to protect people from violence — either at school or at a nightclub. Perhaps another method could help protect people without touching off a fracas over the Second Amendment.

Either way, nothing is working. Congress certainly hasn’t acted on the issue because voters haven’t compelled them.

So at some point, in the not too distant future, there will be yet another press conference. Pelosi will take the lectern, speaking in grim terms. And like a sentinel, Mike Thompson will appear.

The sad reality is that everyone will know they’re discussing yet another tragic shooting in America.