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Navy Yard Tragedy Elicits Muted Political Response

American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff Tuesday, a day after the deadly shootings at the Washington Navy Yard.
J. Scott Applewhite
American flags surrounding the Washington Monument fly at half-staff Tuesday, a day after the deadly shootings at the Washington Navy Yard.

A gunman shoots up a military facility, kills a dozen people and puts a fair chunk of the nation's capital on lockdown.

The political response to Monday's massacre at the Navy Yard in Washington?

Measured, bordering on muted.

From the words of the president to those on both sides of the gun control debate, caution has been the rule, with even the sharpest partisans tending to hold their tongues in the hours still suffused with tragedy.

Granted, all the details of what allegedly set Aaron Alexis on his murderous spree are still being sorted out. But there are other reasons that the mass killing has engendered seemingly less outrage, less certainty of response and a struggle for the right questions to ask about guns and America.

The answer, in two words: Sandy Hook.

The massacre of 20 school children and six adult school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December took the nation to a place of horror that it had never visited.

Yet little has changed since, leaving the political component of the debate in an uneasy state.

"In terms of public policy, Sandy Hook generated a lot of activity, but it hasn't yielded anything yet," says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist Third Way think tank and a proponent of gun control measures.

National gun control legislation that would have expanded background checks and tightened restrictions on gun show purchases died in the Senate in April. The bill was supported by a majority of senators — 54 — but failed to hit the veto-proof 60-vote threshold.

And while at least eight states have tightened gun laws since Sandy Hook, more than that have eased their regulations. Two Colorado state senators who supported their state's new gun control laws were ousted last week in a recall election that attracted big money from both the pro-gun National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun-control effort.

Sandy Hook may have set a new bar for gun-related tragedy, at least from a public policy standpoint: Massacres that involve fewer numbers and adult victims simply can't generate enough shock.

"A workplace shooting, no matter how big, just doesn't seem unusual enough to generate public response," Bennett says. "My view is there inevitably will be more of these."

Tragedies like those at Sandy Hook and the Navy Yard will have little policy resonance, he predicts, until there's one involving a perpetrator who gets a gun through a loophole in gun show laws or online.

"As long as they continue to get guns legally, or from family members, many people may think, 'What can be done?' " Bennett says.

The Sandy Hook shooter, who took his own life, got his guns legally from his mother, whom he also murdered. Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in a gunbattle with police at the site, appears to have been in legal possession of the shotgun he brought onto the premises; officials say he later "gained access" to a handgun during the incident.

"If someone wants to propose a new restriction on gun ownership after a tragedy and cites that tragedy as a reason to pass it," says Jim Geraghty, a columnist with the conservative National Review, "it's necessary to show how that new restriction would have prevented, mitigated or impacted that tragedy."

"Almost none of the gun laws proposed after [Sandy Hook] would have changed much of anything in that particular shooting," he says.

Geraghty says there's no need for a new or renewed conversation about guns — that conversation has taken place and lawmakers rejected new restrictions on gun ownership.

Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence counters that the conversation must continue. Change comes slowly, he says, and the important conversations "should not just be driven by these high-profile tragedies."

"The conversations haven't stopped," says Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, 6, was one of the children killed at Sandy Hook. "I don't share a sense of resignation. It is going to take a long time for these changes to happen, and this strengthens our resolve."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.