WASHINGTON — The question surfaces each time a mass murder unfolds: Will this one change the political calculus in Washington against tougher gun control?
The answer, after the Virginia Tech killings, the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords, the Colorado movie-theater attack, the Wisconsin Sikh temple shootings, and more: No.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the bloodiest attack against youngsters in the nation’s history, stands as a possible tipping point on Washington’s decade-long aversion even to talking about stricter gun laws.
So it seems in the stunned aftermath, judging from President Barack Obama’s body language as much as his statement. “We have been through this too many times,” said the famously composed president, this time moved to tears. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
It remains to be seen whether Sandy Hook will break the usual cycle of universal shock fading into political reality. That reality is based on a combination of powerful gun lobbying and public opinion, which has shifted against tougher gun control and stayed that way.
With the murder rate less than half what it was two decades ago, and violent crime down even more in that time, gun control has declined as a political issue.
But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, heard the familiar in Obama’s initial response, despite the striking emotion. “Not enough,” he said of Obama’s words. “We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership — not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”
In July, a gunman opened fire on Aurora, Colo., theatergoers, killing 12 people.
Afterward, Obama declared “we should leave no stone unturned” to keep young people safe in a speech indicating he would challenge Congress to act on gun control. That expectation lasted for one day. The White House swiftly clarified that Obama would not propose stiffer gun laws this election year and favored more effective enforcement of existing law — a position hardly distinguishable from that of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
Likewise, early last year, Obama weighed in on guns after an assailant killed six people and wounded 13, shooting then-Rep. Giffords in the head, in Tucson, Ariz. The president called for “sound and effective steps” on gun laws as part of a “new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people.” He soon went back to silence on the topic; gun-control advocates waited in vain for the steps.
The Aurora attack was in the heat of the campaign, when Democrats wanted no trouble from gun owners. In its first official response to the killings, Obama’s White House pledged to protect fundamental gun rights. Obama and his spokesmen never failed to couple his wish for “common-sense measures” with his devotion to the Second Amendment.
But after the massacre of children Friday, Obama spoke mainly of the anguish, and the need for action, and not at all about the right to bear arms.
By the standards of gun-control politics, that alone was a crack in the status quo.