WASHINGTON—They offered prayers and moments of silence. They sought to comfort. Some flashed with anger and frustration that, once again, America was forced to confront another mass shooting.
Yet less than 48 hours after nine people were shot to death in a South Carolina church, the nation’s political leaders, from President Barack Obama to those Republicans who seek to replace him, as well as those in Congress, either did not call for a closer look at gun violence in America or said they didn’t see one coming soon.
There was little doubt that the gun lobby’s dominance would continue in U.S. politics no matter the calamity. Even the most passionate advocates of stronger gun controls expected no different.
“I’d like to say these shootings in Charleston will be a turning point, enough for Congress to fight back against the gun lobby and take some serious action about gun laws,” said Chelsea Parsons, who oversees gun policy for the liberal Center for American Progress. “But I don’t want to be naive.”
Courting evangelical voters in Washington, a succession of Republican presidential hopefuls stood to express their horror at Wednesday’s attack, yet none suggested gun control be addressed.
“The idea that anyone, that any human being, would walk into a church and sit there for an hour and pray with people that he intended to murder, is depraved, it’s unthinkable,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on the second day of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual gathering.
But he said “laws can’t change” such attacks. “Only the good will and love of the American people can let those folks know that that act is unacceptable, disgraceful.”
Conservative favorite Ben Carson, the only African-American candidate in the field, addressed racial tensions, not gun laws: “If we don’t pay close attention to the hatred and division that’s going on in our nation, this is just a harbinger of what we can expect.”
The response from across the political spectrum illustrates the profound lack of attention gun control has garnered so far in a 2016 campaign that offers sharp differences between the political parties. It also highlights the dominant position the National Rifle Association continues to hold in national politics.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization would not make a statement about the South Carolina shooting “until all the facts are known.” He declined to talk about the politics of the gun debate but has previously said that political leaders have learned that “it’s bad politics to be on the wrong side of the gun issue.”
Police arrested 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof in the Wednesday shooting deaths of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Officials consider the murders a racially motivated hate crime. The victims were black; the suspect, white.
On Thursday, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton said “hard truths” must be faced about guns and race.
“How many innocent people in our country, from little children to church members to movie theater attendees, how many people do we need to see cut down before we act?” she asked. Despite her words, many Democrats see gun control as a losing issue and don’t want to touch it.
Obama pointed to lax gun controls in his response but glumly acknowledged there was no way he could prod Congress to take action on gun violence.
“The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now,” he said flatly.
While a large majority of Americans have consistently supported universal background checks for gun owners, a Gallup poll conducted in January found only 31 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with current gun laws and want to make them stricter.
There were no indications Friday that the Charleston shootings had weakened Congress’ resistance against strengthening gun restrictions. If anything, the odds of congressional action seemed slimmer with both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, who traditionally have been less sympathetic to such curbs.
“I’m skeptical it’s going to change peoples’ minds who weren’t converted by Newtown,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Murphy was part of the Senate’s failed efforts to strengthen background checks following the 2012 massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
A spokesman for Gun Owners of America agreed.
“He couldn’t get it going after Sandy Hook with Democratic control” of the Senate, Erich Pratt said about Obama. “He won’t get it going with Republican control.”