WASHINGTON — In the hours after a Las Vegas gunman mowed down more than 50 people Sunday night, Washington sent an implicit, but clear, message: Do not expect the capital to attempt to stop the next mass shooting.
Leaders of the Republican majority showed no inclination to take action, aside from condemning, standing in silence, and praying. As if on a script, they talked about gun violence in a way that frames the issue as a tragic, but virtually unavoidable, part of American life.
“It was an act of pure evil,” said President Trump in a brief address from the White House Monday, the second time in his presidency that he’s had to react to a gunman opening fire on innocent people.
“In the face of unspeakable evil, our whole nation must respond with countless acts of kindness,” offered House majority whip Steve Scalise, who just returned to his job in the Capitol last week after recovering from wounds inflicted during a mass shooting at a baseball practice in June.
“You can’t regulate evil,” declared Governor Matt Bevin, a Kentucky Republican.
It was unclear Monday what weapon or weapons were used, but early indications were that an automatic weapon was involved. Whether it was a weapon that was banned or was modified legally or illegally, remained uncertain.
Critics of Washington’s refusal to budge on gun control point out that the United States regulates many things to keep them out of the hands of evil and insane people — explosives or the ability to control an airplane, for example. The Republican posture is increasingly frustrating to Democrats and gun control activists who are beginning to boycott the predictable moments of unification that commonly occur in the hours after mass shootings — hoping their refusal to participate will call attention to the inaction.
But the Democratic protests will almost certainly have no impact on the larger gun control debate. Most observers point to the fact that the country refused to pass gun laws after the December 2012 Newtown mass shooting in which 26 people — including 20 children ages 6 and 7 —
Still, these critics were trying to press their case Monday.
“To have only a moment of silence where there never is action taken, tragedy after tragedy, that is not something I want to be a part of,” said Representative Katherine Clark, a Democrat who led a sit-in on the House floor after a mass shooting last year at a nightclub in Orlando.
“To somehow say this is evil and out of our control. . . . That is just hiding behind the horror of the situation and not doing your job,” Clark added.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, called out House Speaker Paul Ryan. ”How many Americans have to die before you do your job?” Moulton said via Twitter. “Allow us to have a debate and a vote. You’re letting America down.’’
Ryan ordered flags at the Capitol to be flown at half staff. He described the shooting as an “evil tragedy.”
Gun control activists worry that Trump and other Republicans are setting up a conversation intended to lead nowhere.
“I saw the president’s remarks; it left out a number of different things including this is a problem, and for problems there are solutions,” said Mark Kelly, an astronaut and husband of former representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in January 2011.
“Washington, D.C., and Congress as a collective body is a difficult organization to work with, and to be honest, they are not doing a good job serving the American people,” Kelly said.
But Democratic strategists seemed to acknowledge that the calls from their party leaders and others are not having much of an impact in Washington and made appeals outside of the capital for help. Ronald Klain, who advised Hillary Clinton during her 2016 race, suggested that the country music industry should take a stand.
“Country music stars are BELOVED by fans,” said Klain on Twitter. “Will any use their influence to move the needle w/ their fans on sensible gun laws?”
This angst about guns comes after 59 people died and more than 500 were injured when a 64-year old gunman who police identified as Stephen Paddock opened fire on a country concert from the Mandalay Bay Resort. The carnage makes it the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Polling shows Republican voters support some gun control measures. Nearly 90 percent of GOP voters say that the mentally ill should not be able to purchase a gun, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center. Seventy-seven percent want background checks for private sales or weapons purchased at gun shows. And 54 percent would ban the assault-style weapons that are frequently used in mass shootings.
But the Republican Party’s energized base is quick to turn on anyone seen as soft on the Second Amendment, leaving GOP candidates competing to show who is more pro-gun. In a recent Senate primary in Alabama, Republican Roy Moore pulled out a gun during a campaign rally to show how much likes weapons. He beat incumbent Luther Strange.
On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was too early to start discussing policy changes after the shooting.
“Today is a day for consoling the survivors and mourning those we lost,” said Sanders when asked if the president might push for tighter gun laws.
Trump has a mixed record when talking about gun issues. He rode into office with the support of the National Rifle Association, and in April at an NRA conference in Atlanta he declared: “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
But Trump wrote something quite different in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve.’’
“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun,” Trump wrote at the time, as he was considering a presidential bid with the Reform Party.
Even if the president were to somehow support a measure of gun control, it’s far from certain it could pass. The president hasn’t scored a single major legislative victory, even on such issues as repealing Obamacare, that his party supports.
Many Democrats around the country, too, are not ready to embrace stronger gun regulations.
John Hugh “Buddy” Dyer, the Democratic mayor of Orlando, used a version of the GOP line to avoid talking about gun control. “As he was after the Pulse tragedy, he is focused on healing and hope versus national and state issues like gun legislation,” said Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
Joshua D. Stephany, the medical examiner for Orlando’s Orange County, had to examine the 49 bodies left by a mass shooter there and said it’s difficult to arrive at any public policy solution. “It such a complex issue. There’s guns. There’s mental health issues. You just don’t know,” Stephany said. “Each of these instances is one unto themselves. It’s very easy to say gun control, but then somebody snaps.”Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.