The gunman’s target was a small church in a tiny town on an ordinary Sunday. By the time the rampage was over, 26 people were dead, including children.
Each mass shooting that shatters an American community is its own particular horror. But the response from U.S. lawmakers is proving uniform – to do very little, if anything.
In Sutherland Springs, Tex., the gunman was armed with a military-style semi-automatic weapon and handguns. He had made threats toward his wife’s mother, who attended the church, authorities said, linking the motive for the attack to a “domestic” conflict.
The violence came a little over a month after a gunman opened fire on a country-music concert in Las Vegas.
The attack killed 58 people and wounded about 500, and the assailant used a military-style rifle modified to fire an automatic stream of bullets.
Four of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have occurred in the past five years. Two – in Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas – in only the past several weeks. Yet so far, lawmakers show little sign they are prepared to enact even modest legislation to address the crisis.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is travelling in Asia, called Sunday’s attack in Texas a “very, very sad event.” He said it represented a “mental-health problem at the highest level” but was not a “guns situation.” In contrast, Mr. Trump demanded specific policy changes from Congress less than 24 hours after last week’s terrorist attack in New York.
Mr. Trump also highlighted the actions of a man in the area who fired his own weapon at the shooter and jumped in another man’s car to chase him as he fled. Without those actions, the loss of life “would have been much worse,” Mr. Trump said.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the U.S. Senate, echoed Mr. Trump when asked what lawmakers could do in response to the attack in Texas. “It’s hard to envision a foolproof way to prevent individual outrages by evil people,” he said, according to CNN.
The gunman in Texas had a semi-automatic rifle and several handguns, at least one of which he bought at a gun store. He was earlier discharged from the military after being court martialled on a charge of domestic violence. The Air Force reportedly failed to enter that conviction into the national database used for background checks, which would have prevented him from purchasing a weapon from a dealer.
After the shooting in Las Vegas, there appeared to be a small opening in the divisive debate over guns, which pits those who favour tighter restrictions against those who see restrictions as unacceptable infringements on a constitutional right.
The Las Vegas shooter used an accessory known as a “bump stock” to adapt his rifle to function like an automatic weapon (such weapons are prohibited in the United States). Two members of the House of Representatives – one Republican, one Democrat – proposed legislation to outlaw such accessories and garnered support from their colleagues.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful group representing the gun industry and gun owners, signalled it would be open to restrictions on bump stocks, but said the matter should be handled not via legislation in Congress but through regulation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives – who determines which legislation is brought to the floor for a vote – agreed with the NRA’s approach. There is only one problem: According a previous ATF decision, bump stocks are permitted under current law. So it is far from clear that the bureau can even decide to prohibit them, absent a change in statute. (A spokesperson for the NRA did not respond to a request for comment.)
While the debate over bump stocks is stalled at the federal level, at least one state has moved to outlaw the devices: Massachusetts banned the sale and possession of bump stocks last week, the first state to do so since the Las Vegas shooting.
Advocates for tighter restrictions on guns say that with Republicans controlling the House, the Senate and the presidency, the prospects for enacting such measures are slim. Instead they are focused on blocking several bills supported by the NRA, including one that would make it easier to carry concealed weapons nationwide and another that would make it easier to buy silencers.
“We have become very good at playing defence, and we believe we can prevent these bills from passing,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Ms. Watts started the grassroots group after a gunman killed 26 people, most of them children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. Her group later became part of Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization backed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Ms. Watts added that Congress could take several steps in response to the shooting in Texas. A number of states have tightened existing restrictions to prevent domestic abusers from buying more guns; some states also allow local police to remove weapons abusers already own. Lawmakers could take up such legislation at the national level, Ms. Watts said, or close the loophole under which private gun sales are not subject to background checks.
A survey conducted by polling firm Ipsos after the Las Vegas shooting found that 68 per cent of Americans said gun laws should be stricter. A large majority – 83 per cent – supported a ban on bump stocks, while 79 per cent favoured a ban on assault-style weapons. “Across party lines, there is a relatively high level of support for some sort of regulation around specific issues,” said Clifford Young of Ipsos Public Affairs.
That support has not translated into legislation. Zach Wamp, who was a long-time Republican member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, said opposing the NRA in his home state is hazardous for politicians. But he added that the recent mass shootings are prompting some conservatives he knows to reconsider what can be done.
“When lunatics strike the heart of Texas, they obviously get the attention of gun-rights supporters,” Mr. Wamp said. “It’s going to be interesting to see at what point the human cost causes people to stand up who have been sitting down.”
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2017