(The Root) — This week in the nation's capital, 12 innocent people were massacred as a crazed gunman used a Remington 12-gauge shotgun to rain down terror upon a lobby of unsuspecting Navy yard employees who were having breakfast and beginning their day.
This is the face of freedom and Second Amendment rights in America's "democratic" society.
Last year, after the slaughter of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., it seemed that the political winds had changed. President Barack Obama called for Congress to pass stricter gun control legislation in response to what was universally condemned as an unconscionable act of domestic terror. Reasonable minds on both the left and right of the political spectrum agreed that the proliferation of guns — and semi-automatic weapons in particular — had become a metastasizing disease rapidly deteriorating the country's social fabric and undermining its social contract.
For what is the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness if the right to destroy life is equally protected?
Aaron Alexis, the 34-year-old identified as the shooter in Monday's assault, legally purchased the gun and ammunition he used in the attack. This was despite his having been arrested and cited for violent gun-related crimes in 2004 and 2010. Alexis was a former Navy Reserve officer with a documented history of mental illness. And the Associated Press reports that he suffered from various mental-health problems, including paranoia, sleep disorders and hearing voices. Yet Alexis gained employment with a federal contractor at the Navy yard and was apparently unimpeded in his purchase of firearms.
The cognitive dissonance inherent in these facts is what drives so many gun control advocates to cry foul on a Congress seemingly held hostage by the National Rifle Association and gun-manufacturing lobby. It simply makes no sense.
Reasonable gun control measures, like those President Obama proposed after the Newtown massacre, might have helped prevent this kind of incident. Yet even with a 54-46 bipartisan vote in the U.S. Senate in April, a watered-down background-check bill failed to meet the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold. Even if it had, the measure was all but dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, which remains beholden to the radical, far-right wing of the Republican Party.
Though violent-crime rates have declined precipitously since the 1990s, there is one curious fact that belies the statistics: Mass shootings have occurred at an average rate of one per month since 2009. And though assault weapons are used in a minority of mass shootings, the incidents in which they are used are much deadlier.
Veronique Pozner, the mother of 6-year-old Noah, who was killed in Newtown, took her cue from the mother of Emmett Till by allowing an open casket at her son's wake. She was intent on showing how guns kill and the true horror of what that looks like. "His jaw was blown away," she said in an interview. "I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don't talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night."
It seems that the carnage of gun violence has become so normative and commonplace that Americans are desensitized to its true nature. This allows the kind of complacency and callous disregard we see among the political and chattering classes in Washington. They offer prayers and empathetic gestures in place of policy and bold moral leadership.
So will this latest mass shooting change anything? It's unlikely. The Republican Party appears committed to stalemate and obstruction as long as the first African-American president resides in the White House. That means that even commonsense measures on gun control are politicized. Debates about Second Amendment rights, the need to respect "law-abiding" gun owners and ramped-up fears of a national gun registry provide smokescreens for those who would rather see the status quo remain unchanged.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a fierce advocate of gun control since the 2011 shooting death of his beloved nephew, spoke exclusively to The Root about this latest mass shooting and whether his colleagues have the political will to value people and policy over party and politics.
The Root: Congressman, you worked tirelessly earlier this year in an attempt to bring stricter gun control legislation to the floor of the House, and it failed due to a lack of majority support. What was your reaction to this latest mass shooting?
Elijah Cummings: I was very saddened. Every time something like that happens, it makes me deeply saddened. You know, we don't have mass murders like this in Baltimore, but where I'm from in West Baltimore, we see a lot of senseless killings from gun violence. And my community is affected every day, the [same] way Chicago and Detroit [are], but it just doesn't draw the attention of the media because our society has become used to it. As if that's the way things are supposed to be.
TR: Do you think this incident, because it involved U.S. military personnel and occurred in the nation's capital, will galvanize members of Congress to revisit gun control?
EC: As much as I want to be optimistic, if they didn't do it after Newtown, I don't know when they'll do it. When you have 20 children … 20 innocent little kids being shot down at close range by an assault weapon and you choose to do nothing, then when will you act? I think it will be very difficult to get any meaningful legislation passed. And I hate to think this, but I'm beginning to realize it. [There was a time when] these things would happen, and the first reaction was to do something about it. When Newtown happened, that moment was impregnated with possibilities for reform.
TR: What is the issue holding them back? Is it that Republicans remain anti-Obama even when they agree with him? Or is it that certain members of Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — are beholden to the NRA?
EC: It [is] hard for me to believe that there are many members of Congress that wouldn't vote for universal background checks and reasonable laws like the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act that I sponsored if it were not for the NRA. There are clearly a number of my colleagues who are concerned about the NRA spending funds to defeat them in a primary challenge.
This is a matter of political survival, and they are compromising their moral principles for political expediency. My colleagues know that voting for such legislation would bring about a far-right Republican opponent in the next election. And knowing that the gun lobby would be supporting their challenger causes a lot of Republicans to hesitate and not take the chance.
TR: Will you take a bold stand and reintroduce gun control legislation despite the headwinds and political stalemate?
EC: Our first attempt was bipartisan and got nowhere. Scott Rigell is a Republican from Virginia, and Rep. Patrick Meehan is a Republican from Pennsylvania. They both stood with Carolyn Maloney of New York and me in our push for legislation. And though I have often said that you must keep pushing legislation until the time comes, I'm less hopeful in this situation.
Newtown was the best time to do it because the issue was so clear. And the public had a lot of information about it. I can't see myself right now putting anything forward because the support simply isn't there. And I think, sadly, that's how the president and many of my colleagues feel.
TR: In light of the debate over the last few weeks about the children and civilians massacred in the Syrian civil war — and America's moral responsibility to act — is it not hypocritical that our politicians will consider spending billions to police democratic values abroad but won't act to prevent the murder of thousands in America?
EC: Yes. And I wonder about where our priorities are. We have children who are suffering here at home. When I visit high schools and ask children what is most important to them, they will tell me it is their safety. Especially when I speak to young African-American males, it is their safety that most concerns them.
It seems to me that we should look into our own backyards and react with the same fervor and sense of outrage that we do when we see children abroad slain senselessly and victims of unfettered, inexplicable violence. That is the kind of moral leadership that my colleagues and I were elected to provide.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.