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Guns, the Navy Yard and the Media: Echoes of an anguished debate

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Sept. 17, 2013: A man who would identify himself only as a Navy Yard employee walks to lay a bouquet of flowers by an anchor outside of the closed Washington Navy Yard in Washington. (AP)

After a long, depressing day following the carnage at the Washington Navy Yard, I woke up yesterday to this Politico headline: “After shooting, talk turns to gun control.”

“Gun Control Debate Reignited in Washington,” said an MSNBC headline.

That is the media’s default response after a mass shooting, and it’s an important debate to have.

But we already had it after the horror of Newtown, and it has become clear that Congress is not going to act on this issue.

The shooting spree by Aaron Alexis isn’t likely to change that, even though he killed 12 people literally in Capitol Hill’s backyard. What’s more, CNN is now saying Alexis didn’t have an AR-15 assault rifle as had been widely reported, which muddles the picture even further.

In fact, as the New York Times reports, Alexis “test fired an AR-15 assault rifle at a Virginia gun store last week but was stopped from buying one because state law there prohibits the sale of such weapons to out-of-state buyers, according to two senior law enforcement officials.” 

So in this narrow instance, at least, existing gun control laws worked.

Yes, it’s amazing that a guy with his history of psychiatric problems, who once fired shots into his neighbor’s apartment to protest loud music, can get any kind of gun, let alone a contractor’s clearance into a military base. But some of the stricter proposals, such as requiring background checks for gun show purchases, would not have prevented the massacre.

The other major proposal debated last winter, limiting high-capacity magazines that enable shooters to keep firing without reloading, never got a vote on the Hill, despite a major push by President Obama and Vice President Biden.

For many journalists, the gun control debate turned intensely personal after Newtown. Many told me how they had cried over the elementary school assault and how it was finally time, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson and Aurora, to devote sustained attention to the issue of guns in our society.

In fact, Newtown so shocked the nation’s conscience that the coverage lasted for months, fueled in part by a major White House campaign that could not win over Congress. 

Now the NRA’s clout was a major factor, but a majority of lawmakers, especially in the Republican-controlled House, simply don’t want to vote for tighter gun restrictions. And the recent recall of two Colorado state lawmakers who voted for such restrictions underscores the volatility of the issue.

Alexis is said to have bought a shotgun in Virginia before the assault and to have grabbed one or more handguns from his victims.

CNN was among many news outlets, ranging from the New York Times and Washington Post and New York Daily News, which put a picture of the assault weapon on the cover, to the AP and Fox News, that said Monday he had used the AR-15 rifle. 

But CNN said yesterday that, "the sources, who have detailed knowledge of the investigation, cautioned that initial information that an AR-15 was used in the shootings may have been incorrect. It is believed that Alexis had rented an AR-15, but returned it before Monday morning’s shootings.” 

And officials later confirmed at a briefing there was no evidence that Alexis brought an AR-15 to the Navy Yard.

The gun issue was muted in Monday’s coverage, but Piers Morgan, a gun control crusader, went off that evening with three pro-gun advocates. 

“We have this debate every time," the CNN host said. "I want the day to come when we don't have to have this ridiculous debate time and again in America. AR-15, killing multiple Americans, I just cannot have this debate anymore and it's ridiculous!”

If past is prologue, the gun debate will ricochet around the media for a week or so and then fade. Without action by the administration, which failed to muster sufficient support after Newtown, there will be no news peg to keep the story going. 

When the president addressed the shootings at a White House event Monday, as Politico’s piece put it,“Obama again hinted at his view that Congress must act to to help prevent future massacres, but offered no specifics and stopped short of promising a new White House campaign on that front.”

While the Navy Yard aftermath drew plenty of coverage yesterday, there were plenty of other stories as well. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called such mass shootings “a regular part of our news expectations.”

That is undeniably sad. And maybe I felt this one more profoundly because it happened not far from the neighborhood where I work, as opposed to, say, Fort Hood, Texas. Maybe it’s easier for people to tune out and move on when killings take place on a military base, where only a fraction of the population works, than in a school or shopping center or movie theater.  

The Navy Yard news is depressing, but it’s important for the media to stay on the story.

Wall Street Journal Hits Conservative GOP-ers as Suicidal

You might expect the Wall Street Journal editorial page to be sympathetic to the most aggressive House conservatives.

These days, you would be wrong.

The conservative page has delivered a spanking to the Republican rebels who want to derail a budget deal with the White House, and in a disparaging tone that describes them as “kamikazes.”

Now maybe said kamikazes will dismiss the editorial as the carping of the establishment. But if you’re a Tea Party type and you’ve lost the Journal, you might want to think twice about your strategy.

The Journal says that Republicans can’t govern from the House, and can’t do anything unless they can get to 218 votes, which the dissidents are preventing John Boehner from doing in the budget talks. 

And that, says the paper, “may let Mr. Obama outwit them like a domestic Vladimir Putin.” 

There is also a swipe at “pressure groups” like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.

“These critics portrayed the Boehner plan as a sellout because of a campaign that captured the imagination of some conservatives this summer: Republicans must threaten to crash their Zeros into the aircraft carrier of ObamaCare. Their demand is that the House pair the ‘must pass’ CR or the debt limit with defunding the health-care bill. Kamikaze missions rarely turn out well, least of all for the pilots.”

Crash their Zeros into the aircraft carrier? Ouch.

The editorial’s message reflects the MSM consensus that the backbenchers cannot achieve their goal. 

“If Republicans insist that any spending bill must defund ObamaCare, then a showdown is inevitable that shuts down much of the government. Republicans will claim that Democrats are the ones shutting it down to preserve ObamaCare. Voters may see it differently given the media's liberal sympathies and because the repeal-or-bust crowd provoked the confrontation.”

The media’s sympathies have little to do with it. This crowd is provoking a confrontation that their own House speaker doesn’t want and doesn’t think his side can win.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as the Journal’s conclusion unless things completely blow up, but here it is.

“The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule.”

Time Marches On

Nancy Gibbs, a 28-year veteran and one of the hardest-working women in the biz, has been named the first female editor in Time magazine’s history.

She’s also written more cover stories than any other person at Time.

Here’s a video in which she talks about how Time and its various platforms are reaching 50 million people, more than ever before.

Gibbs is succeeding Rick Stengel, who has been nominated for a top State Department post. 

“I like the fact that glass ceilings are breaking all over," she tells Forbes. "Probably very soon it won’t even be something anyone notices when you have a woman taking over one of these jobs. I’m just excited to be the editor, although when my daughters heard the news and told me how proud it made them, that felt great.”

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.