Senate Democrats are taking a fresh look at reviving a push to curb gun violence as party leaders a day after a shooting rampage less than 2 miles from the Capitol said they still lack the votes to advance a bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reiterated his pledge to hold a vote on a measure to expand background checks for most firearms purchases, which failed to advance in April. Several Democrats and Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, said the massacre of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard should compel Congress to act.
After the gunman’s rampage, Senate leaders reported little movement to suggest few of the five Democrats and 41 Republicans who opposed the legislation changed their position.
“We’re going to move this up as quickly as we can, but we’ve got to have the votes first,” Reid, of Nevada, told reporters yesterday at the Capitol. “We don’t have the votes. I’d like to get them, but we don’t have them now.”
Reid spoke a day after a government contractor, Aaron Alexis, 34, walked into the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters carrying a shotgun and opened fire in the complex near the U.S. Capitol. He was shot to death by police.
Congress ran out of momentum, stalling over the gun measure proposed after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December. Congress was unable to pass even a stripped-down version of a package President Barack Obama advocated in January.
“The chance of any movement on this issue now is zero,” said Robert Spitzer, author of four books on the history of gun control. “That wind blew itself out politically.”
The Navy Yard shootings don’t match the intensity of the carnage at an elementary school that propelled Congress to examine new gun laws earlier this year, Spitzer said.
“This becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings,” Obama said in an interview yesterday with Telemundo. “And yet we’re not willing to take some basic actions,” he said, referring to Congress.
“The fact that we do not have a firm enough background-check system is something that makes us more vulnerable to these kinds of mass shootings,” Obama said.
Even if additional support in Congress emerges, lawmakers will be consumed in coming weeks by debates over federal spending and raising the U.S. debt ceiling.
The April 17 vote was the most significant gun restriction vote in 20 years and its failure countered 90 percent public support in some polls for mandatory background checks.
The bill by Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, would have expanded mandatory background checks to include purchases from private dealers at gun shows and over the Internet.
The measure was a skeleton of a package Obama proposed in January, which included renewing an assault-weapons ban and placing limits on high-capacity magazines.
Senators who backed the legislation said they are optimistic they may be able to gather some votes by including a measure dealing with mental-health issues.
“There’s a lot of consensus around some of the elements of a comprehensive strategy, like mental health,” which is “what we lacked in the last program,” said Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who worked with families of the Newtown victims to press for new gun restrictions.
Manchin said he hasn’t discussed a strategy with Reid, and resistance remains strong in the Senate. “I don’t think anything’s changed on guns,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who opposed the background checks measure.
Even some of the effort’s staunchest backers expressed skepticism that the latest mass killing will alter the politics surrounding gun restrictions.
“I’d vote tomorrow for a strong background check,” said California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. “Having said that, we got 40 votes, we need 60 votes, and to go through it all again, it’s a very emotional discussion because it involves human life, innocent life, and not to be able to succeed is hard.”
Alexis entered the Navy Yard with a shotgun that he bought legally in Virginia, and he may have picked up a handgun once inside, said Valerie Parlave, the assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington field office. She said officials have no indication he had a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle.
Alexis, who last address was in Texas, was unable to buy an AF-15 at a Virginia gun store last week because a state law bars the sale of such weapons to out-of-state buyers, the New York Times reported, citing two law enforcement officials. Instead, he bought a shotgun, which he used in his rampage.
The Navy ordered a review of security at military facilities as Congress pressed the Pentagon to make public a report showing lapses in the way private contractors receive permission to work on bases. Alexis entered the base with a valid identification card tied to his work.
A common theme in many of the nation’s worst mass shootings is the gunman’s history of mental illness, including the shootings in Newtown, at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012 and at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Alexis, a former Navy reservist and technology contractor, had trouble controlling his anger and may have been suffering from stress brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to relatives. He had sought mental health assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to USA Today, quoting a federal law enforcement official.
While states are supposed to submit mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a federal database to screen gun purchasers, many have incomplete records and the system is unreliable, Spitzer said. It’s a weakness that Virginia, with a Republican-led legislature, addressed after the Virginia Tech shootings.
Most measures to limit gun ownership are opposed by Republicans, while Democratic supporters haven’t won over some colleagues facing a potential backlash from the gun lobby and voters in their states.
“I hope that some members will reconsider their opposition,” Senate Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said. “This individual appeared to have some background issues that should have raised some questions.”
Five Democrats in April voted against the background-check measure: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Baucus announced soon after the vote that he will retire at the end of his current term. Reid also voted no, allowing himself under Senate rules to seek reconsideration of the vote.
“If I read the reports, he bought his guns legally and had a background check, so the issue that that gentlemen had was mental-health issues,” Begich told reporters yesterday at the Capitol, noting that he has introduced legislation that would have made sure Alexis “would have been in the background check system” when he sought to buy a gun.
Pryor and Begich face re-election next year in states carried by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Pryor said today the Navy Yard shooting hadn’t changed his mind, or his vote against the Manchin-Toomey measure. “I haven’t seen anything yet that would warrant a change,” he said.
Last week Colorado voters -- in an effort backed by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby -- recalled two state legislators who supported stricter gun laws. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, poured money into opposing the effort.
Mayor Bloomberg today released a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns that estimated at least 25,000 guns a year are bought illegally on the Internet by people with criminal records without background checks.
“Thousands of people already barred by existing federal law from purchasing guns are flocking to the Internet to evade background checks and acquire guns illegally with no questions asked,” according to a report by the group, which includes about 1,000 municipal chief executives.
The conclusions are based on a random sample of 601 gun buyers who listed ads seeking to buy weapons on the website armslist.com from February to May. It found 1 in 30 had committed crimes that would bar them from owning firearms.
Extrapolating the results to the website’s 790,000 firearm ads a year, the group estimated about 25,000 guns could be transferred to people with criminal records. Federal law doesn’t require background checks for Internet gun sales, so people who would be barred from buying such weapons may do so undeterred, Bloomberg said.
Gun regulation advocates say they are frustrated that recent mass shootings haven’t led Congress to pass tougher gun restrictions.
“Losing 20 small children should have compelled them to do something immediately,” said Po Murray, a spokeswoman for the Newtown Action Alliance, a group founded to press for stricter gun laws. “I wish that Americans will remember that and urge Congress to do something, because it’s going to happen over and over again.”