Aaron Alexis: Ideal gun debate symbol

Following the Washington Navy Yard massacre, questions about gun control will lead to same dead end

Published September 17, 2013 2:20PM (EDT)

One day after the Washington Navy Yard shooting, which left 12 victims and the gunman dead, scant detail is known about motive or context for the tragedy. But, as sure as the sun will rise, the gun control debate following yet another mass shooting has sprung up in a familiar form (all too sadly predictable after the seventh mass shooting under Obama's presidency).

At this point, the question of guns is a meta-debate, as media outlets including the AP, the Los Angeles Times and more question whether a shooting in the national capitol will or will not prompt a legislative debate in the face of Second Amendment supporters.

The NRA has declined to comment on Monday's massacre. Following tragic shootings, the powerful gun lobby tends to stay mum for a few days, enabling gun control advocates to call for stricter laws, at which point the NRA can step on the reactionary foot and push back.

Meanwhile, pro-gun control Democrats were ready to jump once again on the gun control fulcrum, within hours of shooter Aaron Alexis' rampage. As the AP reported:

As Senate office buildings were closed to visitors Monday following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, lawmakers from both sides of the debate offered sympathy for the victims. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a leading advocate for tougher gun control in the Senate, issued a call to action to stop "the litany of massacres."

"When will enough be enough?" the California Democrat said in a written statement. "Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country. We must do more to stop this endless loss of life."

Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul Barrett jumped preemptivley to the NRA's defense, suggesting that yesterday's tragedy was no useful hook for gun control advocates:

Attacking the NRA in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting at a naval installation, where many people are presumably allowed to carry firearms, seems at best like an exercise in irrelevance. At worst, it’s ill-timed sensationalism. As an alternative, let’s sort out what exactly happened at the Navy Yard this morning and then calmly discuss what policies, if any, can deter such slaughter.

Indeed, Barrett is right that the questions of arming or disarming civilians -- the sort that dominated news cycles following the Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., shootings -- do seem out of place following a massacre at a Navy Yard.

We know very little about Aaron Alexis or how he obtained his shotgun (he reportedly was carrying more than one firearm). From what little we do know about Alexis, it seems feasible that the bill to expand background checks for gun purchasers, rejected by the Senate in April, may have stopped Alexis buying a firearm. As Think Progress noted, the shooter had a history of firearms incidents and suffered from mental health issues. Via TP:

According to his hometown newspaper, The Star-Telegram, Alexis has had previous gun-related incidents:
Tarrant County court records show Alexis was arrested in September 2010 for allegedly discharging a firearm within a municipality. The records do not indicate that Alexis was ever formally charged in the case.
Later that same month, Tarrant County court records show that The Orion at Oak Hill apartments in Fort Worth began eviction efforts against Alexis.
Alexis’s former roommate told told the Star-Telegram that the gunman owned a semiautomatic weapon and a concealed handgun license.
Under federal law, it’s very likely that Alexis was still able to legally posses a firearm.

We thus have in Alexis yet another strong symbol for the problems with current gun laws. A man with mental health and rage problems and a history of gun misuse. Like Holmes and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, we will see him trotted out by gun control advocates.

When 20 primary school children were slaughtered last December, it seemed a shift in gun laws was inevitable. But regulation efforts were defeated. This week, pundits are wondering whether the fact of a shooting in Washington will make a difference. Most likely it will spark an all-too-familiar debate with a (predictable) legislative dead end.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post reported that Alexis used an AR-15. The FBI have denied this rumor.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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