By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Why can’t conservatives just take the win on gun rights?
On Monday morning, President Obama didn’t even try to use the massacre at the Washington Navy Yard to revive the gun-control debate. He praised the “patriots” who were targeted by the gunman, offered the requisite thoughts and prayers, and, without any overt call for gun restrictions, moved on to Syria, the economic recovery and his budget fight with Republicans.
Rather than accept this surrender on gun control, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus accused Obama of a “bizarre response” to the shootings, and House Speaker John Boehner complained the president didn’t “rise above partisanship.”
“President Obama delivered only brief condolences for the victims of the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Monday morning, before quickly pivoting to a scheduled attack on Republicans,” protested the conservative Daily Caller.
Of course, conservatives would have been even more indignant had Obama used the occasion to talk about gun control, as he did after the Newtown, Conn., massacre. His response was really a tacit acknowledgment that there is no hope of reviving even the modest gun measure that failed in the Senate in April. If 20 slain first-graders didn’t move Congress, the killing of a dozen adults — a depressingly ordinary event in this violence-numb nation — wasn’t about to change the equation.
Obama continues to favor gun control, which he reiterated Tuesday when asked by Telemundo. But the issue, for the foreseeable future, is settled: Gun control is dead.
Days earlier in Colorado, voters tossed out two state senators because they had supported laws requiring background checks for gun transfers and limiting the capacity of ammunition clips. That dashed hopes that gun-control advances could be made in the states if not in Washington.
Some of Congress’ most fervent gun-control advocates, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., made their ritual pleas for legislation, but they were going through the motions. “God forbid we go on with business as usual and not understand what happened yesterday,” Durbin said on the Senate floor. He then proceeded with business as usual, looking up at the public gallery and debating Republicans on Obamacare.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., didn’t even go through the motions. He said Tuesday that the recall vote in Colorado “does not bode well for asking people to vote for legislation similar to that which went down in the Senate just a few months ago.”
In the Senate, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., put out word that he had no intention of reviving the legislation he wrote with Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to keep guns away from the mentally unstable and the violent. When it failed in April, Manchin vowed to reintroduce it.
Instead, lawmakers resumed their usual speeches and squabbles over: health care, the debt ceiling, energy, abortion, food stamps, the judiciary, Benghazi, school vouchers, Native American gambling and education in the Northern Mariana Islands.
The shootings earned, at best, a respectful pause. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, reading from a script at a breakfast Tuesday, offered “thoughts and prayers” as well as “deep condolences” — and then gave a speech on economic conditions.
Doug Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, didn’t even mention the shootings at a news conference releasing his latest projections. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opened the chamber by requesting a moment of silence for the Navy Yard victims but within five minutes was talking about the “hypocritical and mean-spirited” GOP strategy on health care. “It’s time for Republicans,” he said, “to grow up.”
John Thune, R-S.D., had it about right when he said on the Senate floor: “The business of the country goes on, the business of the Senate goes on, but for the families of the victims of that tragedy yesterday, things stand still. And it’s important for all of us, I think, to take a moment and to mourn with them.”
Nineteen seconds later, Thune resumed his condemnation of Obama’s economic record.
At the White House on Tuesday, Julie Pace of AP noted Obama’s subdued response to the shooting and asked if “maybe there’s some sort of numbness among the public since these shootings have happened so frequently.” Another questioner asked if there’s “an exhaustion and an acceptance that this is the new normal.”
Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president “doesn’t accept that it’s the new normal.”
Maybe not. But the loss of hope for gun control is becoming a durable abnormal.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.