Navy Yard shootings: No shift in guns debate coming

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

image copyrightReuters
image captionOn Monday, a flag flew at half-mast over the White House, where Obama mourned what he called "yet another mass shooting"

I'm standing in front of a yellow police cordon, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles in the background. The locations change, but the question from the presenters in London is as predictable as it is understandable.

"Will this tragedy make a difference to the debate on gun control?" The short and blunt answer: "No."

Certainly the murders at the Navy Yard will give fresh impetus to a very old debate.

As I write I hear a trail for a discussion on NPR radio. Even as President Barack Obama paid tribute to those killed, you could hear that he had made up his mind that this was no terrorist attack but yet another example of out of control gun violence.

But one thing is missing from this debate - open minds.

The assumption in Britain is that another shocking mass murder will make people more open to gun control. But the debate is so emotional, so partisan that the two sides are already lined up in two hostile camps. Those who are against gun control will point out that Washington DC has some of the toughest laws in the country.

Even before he opened fire, Aaron Alexis was probably breaking the law already by carrying guns.

Gun control opponents will argue that making more laws for him to break would not have stopped the crime. Some will make the argument that if more workers had guns the gunman would have been killed sooner and fewer would have died.

It is worth remembering that the jolting, sickening shock of the Sandy Hook killing of children just before Christmas did seem to change the debate, just a little.

But the wave of passion ebbed away within months. Mr Obama used it to launch a political campaign for new laws. He called for what some would regard as very small changes - a ban on military-style assault rifles and a background check for all gun buyers (at the moment sales at gun shows are excluded).

Those proposals aren't quite formally dead, but they are languishing with little apparent chance of revival. This shooting may change that, but I would be very surprised.

The real point may not be legal, but cultural.

Alexis had twice in the past shot in the general direction of people who had irritated him. Tyres and ceilings were thankfully the only casualties.

But in some countries that would mean he would not be allowed to own a gun and might have ended up in prison for a fairly long time.

Here, particularly in Texas, it is not that big a deal.

Hard as it is to change the law, it is much harder to change attitudes.

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