The numbers behind Sunday night’s shooting in Las Vegas tell the story: 58 people are dead. More than 500 are injured. The gunman, whom his brother described as a wealthy retiree who routinely sent cookies to his mother, had at least 10 rifles in the hotel room from where he conducted the massacre.
But the chances of Congress addressing mass shootings in America: Zero. There are very few certainties in Washington, but this is one of them.
We still don’t know why the shooter did what he did. We don’t know if he was coerced or mentally ill. We don’t know how he got his weapons or whether he broke the law to get them. We also don’t know what, if anything, could have prevented the shooting. But because he used guns as his weapons of choice, we know for certain that Monday will likely be the last we hear about the Las Vegas shooting in Washington in any substantive way, other than regret that the violence happened and complaints that more isn’t being done to prevent it. But will more be done, no matter what “more” might involve? No. You can count on it.
We know this because nothing, no matter how gruesome, has rousted Congress to action on the issue of gun violence in the last 20 years, despite the relentless drumbeat of news about them. Shootings at churches haven’t done it, nor have shootings at schools. The horrible murder of first-graders in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, did not result in any changes, and neither did two separate attacks on members of Congress, one from each party. The shooting last year at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — until Sunday, the nation’s most deadly — seemed to make no difference in the debate. And neither, sadly, will the massacre in Las Vegas.
The gun factor
What sets gun violence apart from all the other terrible ways people lose their lives when it comes to Congress’ willingness to act? If an airline crash had killed 58 people trying to land at the Las Vegas airport Sunday, members of Congress would join together to launch investigations and hold hearings. What happened and why, they would demand to know. Was it the pilot’s fault or the airline’s fault? What can Congress do? Which laws can they pass? How can they at least try to solve the problem?
If more than 500 people had become ill in a Mandalay Bay restaurant, you could almost see the joint press conference with politicians, including the congressional delegation, assuring nervous Americans that the food supply is safe, but they stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in Congress to prevent another outbreak in any other city in America.
Had a bomb maimed the same country music crowd in Las Vegas, the select congressional committee empowered to get to the bottom of the plot would practically appoint itself. A report would be issued, with suggested legislation. Congress would rise above partisanship and pass something, anything, so that the terrorists wouldn’t win. A thousand hashtags would bloom.
But because it was a gunman who turned that joyful concert into a killing field, the country can expect nothing more out of Congress and the White House than to think about us, pray for us, and wait until it happens again.
Who’s to blame?
It seems like a partisan issue, but it’s really not. Republicans may be in charge in Washington now, but even when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, they couldn’t pass meaningful legislation to address mass shootings. The last sustained effort came after Sandy Hook, when Congress failed to pass measures to extend an assault weapons ban or expand background checks for gun sales. In both cases, the votes against were bipartisan.
It’s easy to blame the National Rifle Association for Congress’ inability to even debate the causes of mass shootings. The group can and will pump millions into individual races to influence the outcome and has the most powerful grass-roots operations in the country. They spent nearly $30 million to help President Donald Trump get elected and in turn, he promised at their convention, “We’re going to help the NRA.”
But ultimately, only the members hold their voting cards. Members of Congress in both parties are choosing for their own reasons, either to suit their constituents, to win their next elections or because they really believe restricting guns has no effect on gun violence, to do nothing about the terror that finds Americans again and again in the places and spaces they least expect it.
Right now, the momentum in the gun debate is toward loosening gun laws. The House is poised to consider legislation to make it easier to buy silencers, ostensibly to protect hunters’ hearing better than the ear plugs they already use, as well as a sweeping measure to force states to honor other states’ decisions to allow people to carry a gun without a permit. Until Sunday’s shootings, both bills seemed ready to pass the House fairly easily.
It’s true Trump’s Washington occasionally delivers a surprise breakthrough, and who is to say the president, who was once in favor of gun control, would not be again? Stranger things have happened.
But so far the only real difference the Las Vegas shootings seem to have made was in the president’s tone of the day, which was subdued, even prayerful. He spoke from the White House about unity and “love that defines us today and always will forever.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised “the national spirit of compassion that shines throughout our country” and offered his condolences to the victims and their families.
Democrats demanded action. Republicans prayed for the victims. Progressive groups began fundraising off the news. And the day went on.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.