El Paso and Dayton shootings stir gun debate, will DC react or is cycle repeating?

Republican strategists made sure that initiatives prohibiting gay marriage were on the ballot in key states heading into the 2004 presidential election. Support for those measures coaxed Republicans to the polls to help re-elect President George. W. Bush.

Since then, the furor over same-sex marriage faded from the public consciousness. It simply dissolved as a political issue. Ohio state representative Candice Keller (R) seems to be in the minority on the issue. Keller attributed the recent string of mass shootings to “transgender, homosexual marriage, and drag queen advocates,” among other things.

Bottom line: the divisiveness of same-sex marriage eroded quickly in America. Things “changed” on a dime.

It was popular in the early 1990s to pillory the Central Intelligence Agency for failing to forecast the fall of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. But it’s a misnomer to assert that CIA analysts “missed the call.”

U.S. intelligence officials started seeing signs of a possible shift if not the outright collapse of Eastern European governments and the Soviet Union as early as 1985. However, those not dialed-in to intelligence dispatches stumbled on this front because, well, the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union “had always been there.” The existence of the Berlin Wall, the thermonuclear threat posed by the U.S.S.R. and the Cold War defined global paradigms for decades. Then when things went poof, the metamorphosis appeared abrupt. Those not paying close attention didn’t anticipate the shift.


And so, people wonder if the dual mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton are a turning point.

Observers anticipated a shift after Columbine. After Virginia Tech. After Sandy Hook. After former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) was shot. After the baseball practice shooting which nearly killed House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). After Orlando. After Las Vegas. After Parkland.

People often predict a shift in the immediate aftermath of each melee. But after a few weeks, things revert to where they stood before. There’s no Congressional action. Things calm down. Then the massacres start again and the cycle repeats.

Why would anyone possibly think things would change this time?  If things didn’t change after someone shot up a kindergarten…if things didn’t change after individuals shot not one but two Members of Congress….

So do El Paso and Dayton change things? Are there palpable if subtle changes on the firearms issue? Or this like the CIA and the Soviet Union? Are the rest of us blind to changes gurgling below the surface? Are people inured to potential political changes with mass shootings, because, like with the Berlin Wall and the U.S.S.R., they’ve “always been there?” Is the pattern inculcated so deeply into our psyches that changes are imperceptible because the sequence just repeats after each shooting?


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) put Republicans on notice this week. The New York Democrat accused Republicans of a “cop out” if they attempt to pass “a tepid version” of “red flag” legislation. “Red flag” bills allow authorities to intercede with mentally disturbed or threatening persons if they attempt to access weapons. Schumer demanded Senate Republicans pair red flag language with “House-passed universal background checks legislation.”

President Trump said Wednesday he hoped to “do something on background checks like we’ve never done before.” But after the Parkland shooting in February, 2018, Mr. Trump also said, “we’re going to be doing very strong background checks.”

This is why people suspect El Paso and Dayton are no different than Charleston or Columbine or Aurora. There’s always talk. And yet…

“They’re going to make all of these glorious statements,” predicted Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) speaking at the National Press Club. “After Sandy Hook, remember that? And nothing happened.”

But let’s be clear why things don’t appear to change.

The first problem deals with pragmatism. Lawmakers aren’t certain what exactly would change if they passed new laws. Enhanced background checks would definitely avert tragedy in some instances but not in others. The same with red flag laws. That said, lawmakers may argue that passing legislation could be worth it if it makes a dent in the slaughter scourge.

The second problem is mathematical. The House and Senate generally lacked the votes to advance gun-related legislation. There’s a reason the prohibition on “assault weapons” expired 15 years ago. Congress lacked the votes to renew it. By the same token, there’s also a reason why the Democratically-controlled House approved two bills on background checks last winter. The House had the votes.

Many argue that the issue is with the raw availability of firearms in the U.S., and, to some degree, “assault weapons.”

When asked about barring military-style, high-capacity guns, President Trump said “there is no political appetite for that at this moment.”

He’s right. Such legislation can’t make it through the House – even in this environment. It certainly isn’t ripe in the Senate. The universe of possibilities to “change things” is limited in the current political climate.

But here’s something which deserves attention:

President Trump has made broad use of executive power when Congress can’t or won’t go along with something he likes. Many Congressional Republicans utterly howled when President Obama used executive orders for “DACA” and other issues when Congress was paralyzed to act. Yet, some of the same Republicans who were apoplectic about what they interpreted as extra-Constitutional action by Mr. Obama, were silent when President Trump used the same maneuvers. Some Democrats warned that Mr. Trump abused his executive powers to bypass Congress and redirect money to his border wall against the wishes of Congress. The same with the administration hawking arms to Saudi Arabia.

These ploys could establish new precedents for executive powers – whether its President Trump or someone else.

It’s possible that Mr. Trump’s liberal use of executive authority could open the door for a potential Democratic president to make dramatic changes on firearms if Congressional paralysis persists: A ban on assault weapons. Deeper background checks. Prohibitions on high-capacity magazines. Pick ‘em. Such gambits would definitely render the “change” which so many predicted after each mass shooting since Columbine.

But, no one knows whether Mr. Trump or someone else will win the 2020 presidential race. It’s far from certain that a hypothetical Democratic president would burn political capital on this issue.


So, some are still trying to discern a “moment” or an “event” when things may shift on mass shootings.

Perhaps things just kind of change overnight like they did with same-sex marriage. Maybe the tectonic plates are already in motion, but it’s indecipherable, - ala the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc. Or maybe, just maybe, everything on this issue is in stasis. And nothing ever, ever, ever changes.