LAS VEGAS — The deadliest mass shooting in modern American history thrust the bitter debate about gun rights back to the center of Washington politics Monday — and everyone reached for familiar scripts.
As horror and disbelief rocked the nation after the massacre in Las Vegas that killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500, Democrats demanded more gun control, while Republicans, who oppose new firearms laws, offered condolences and prayers.
Liberals voiced disbelief that such bloodletting, this time at a country music festival, had happened yet again. Sen Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts warned on Twitter: “Thoughts & prayers are NOT enough.”
But conservatives accused Democrats of politicizing a tragedy: “I just think is disgusting,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said.
Much is still unknown about the motivations of 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, who set up a sniper position and rained death and terror on 22,000 revelers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel on Sunday night.
But the carnage he unleashed is unlikely to sufficiently shake up well-worn gun politics to produce meaningful changes in the nation’s gun laws, even though public support for more regulation typically spikes after mass shootings.
In fact, with Republicans monopolizing power in the White House and in Congress, chances of reform appear less promising for Democrats than when President Barack Obama failed to do so after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012.
The structural impediments to change, meanwhile are formidable. Many Republicans sincerely believe their stance on the gun issue is fundamental to the character of America itself. The National Rifle Association maintains a dominant role in Republican politics, and can also threaten Senate Democrats facing re-election in red states next year. Still, the renewed debate on this emotive issue underlines the ever widening gulf of perception separating liberals and conservatives.
There was one new wrinkle in the depressingly well-worn ritual of Washington reacting to the latest massacre — a new White House now understands the heart-rending duty of dealing with national trauma.
In what might have been one of the most conventional moments of his unorthodox political career, President Donald Trump struck appropriate notes of grief and shock as he called for national unity.
If history is a guide, Trump will become weary of repeatedly being called upon to offer comfort after a massacre, an experience that caused Obama to become increasingly contemptible of lawmakers who refused to act.
Trump used his campaign to accuse Democrat Hillary Clinton of conspiring to subvert the Second Amendment, in a wildly popular play to the Republican base. Barring some stunning conversion, he is unlikely to start pushing for more restrictive gun laws.
On Monday, however he strove to reach a wider audience, accepting a President’s duty to offer solace at times of national trial. He did not, as he has often done — for instance, after the Orlando massacre last year — seek to leverage tragedy for political gain. And while his scripted remarks were a perfect match for the moment, it remains to be seen if he will be as apolitical and restrained after he has had time to absorb the quickening Washington debate over the killings.
“We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace,” Trump said. “And we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, meanwhile, choked up when describing the heroism of concert-goers who used their bodies to shield others.
But while the emotion in the White House was heartfelt, the administration showed no evidence that it was contemplating any political shift on guns.
“Today is … a day of reflection, a day of mourning, a day of gratefulness for those that were saved,” said Sanders, voicing the familiar GOP refrain that the aftermath of mass shootings is a bad time to discuss gun control.
“I think that there will be, certainly, time for that policy discussion to take place. But that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment,” she said.
Other Republicans went further.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted, “to all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs…You can’t regulate evil…”
Democrats, now, don’t hesitate to push gun control when tragedy strikes.
Sen. Chris Murphy, who experienced the Sandy Hook tragedy in his home state of Connecticut told Congress to “get off its ass.”
Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts refused to join the President’s moment silence for the Las Vegas victims, saying on Twitter: “it’s time for action.”
Clinton, who demanded gun control during her campaign, called the massacre was “terrible and sickening.” But she also diagnosed the challenge facing Democrats, for whom the issue is becoming increasingly powerful as a mobilizing force in elections.
“Until we change the political calculation for a lot of elected officials and get a much more vigorous campaign … we are still just going to be fighting rearguard actions,” she said on a Center for American Progress podcast.
There’s little political incentive for Republicans on Capitol Hill or the White House to take a risky move away from the GOP base on guns.
A CNN poll in June 2016, conducted after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, found that 68% of Republicans opposed more restrictive measures.
Democratic reformers also believe that the immense power of the NRA — with its intimidating political and fundraising muscle — is a bulwark against action.
“I don’t think the people serving in our Congress and the Senate have the guts to have a frank conversation with the American people,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday.
The shrinking middle of American politics makes gun reforms even more uncomplicated.
Many conservatives, often from rural states where hunting and gun ownership is endemic to the culture,revere the Second Amendment. They do not believe the mad actions of someone who commits a massacre should infringe their constitutional rights or capacity for self defense.
Many liberals from cities and urban areas have never touched a gun or gone hunting, and despair at the government’s inability to ban assault rifles, limit magazines and improve background checks. They have more in common with people in other Western nations who view America’s gun laws as insane.
In 2000, 38% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats said it was more important to protect gun rights than to control gun ownership, according to Pew Research. By the 2016 election, the gap between Trump and Clinton supporters on the same question had jumped to 70%.
Even so, polls show majorities of Americans in favor of stricter background checks for gun purchases, though it is not clear that would have made a difference in Paddock’s case.
But a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia doing just that could not pass the Senate in 2013 in the wake of Sandy Hook.
The structure of the chamber meanwhile means that public support for the bill was irrelevant because large liberal states like California and New York have the same voting power as rural conservative ones, like Wyoming or Arkansas.
Given these constraints, gun rights campaigners understand that reform will take years and will begin in states and cities.
But that means outrages like the one in Vegas will not swiftly reshape the political terrain. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime champion of stricter gun laws, was asked Monday whether anything will change this time.
“You know, I thought Sandy Hook would. I thought Columbine would. I thought 101 California would,” she said. “None of that did.”