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Navy Yard shooting raises questions about gun laws

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Last week, a man by the name of Aaron Alexis walked in to the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters with a bag slung over his shoulder. He entered a bathroom with the bag and left it a few minutes later with a fully assembled Remington 870 shotgun that he had purchased two days previously. The time was 8:20 in the morning. Forty minutes later, 13 people, including Alexis, were dead.

The shotgun had been purchased at the Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton, Virginia, 15 miles south of Washington. Alexis had been honorably discharged from the Navy for over two years, despite at least eight citations of misconduct – including one incident where he shot out the tires of another man’s vehicle.

Since August of this year, Alexis had been treated for mental problems by the Veterans Administration. In spite of all this, on Sept. 14, he legally purchased the shotgun and 24 shells.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, President Obama promised that the perpetrator would be held responsible. Condolences poured in from across the nation. American flags on all public and military buildings were flown at half-staff. There was no discussion, however, on gun control, and it seems unlikely that there will be anytime soon. No matter how many massacres occur in this country, gun laws are not going to change.

The United States is widely seen as having the weakest anti-gun laws, which is mostly due to the strength of the gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association. The passage of the Brady Act in 1993 and the Assault Weapons ban a year later led the NRA and other guns rights groups to increase their membership and lobbying. For 18 years, no gun control bills passed through Congress.

Earlier this year, it appeared as though the federal government was going to enact the first major gun control legislation since the ban on assault weapons in 1994. Several high-profile shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, had swung popular opinion into support for gun control: Gallup reported that 91 percent of citizens supported background checks on all weapons sales, and a majority even supported some of Obama’s more controversial proposals, such as limiting the sale of high capacity magazines and reinstating the ban on assault weapons.

By the time a bill sponsored by Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) reached the Senate, compromise had already removed any mention of magazine limits and assault weapons. The bill instead focused on background checks, and sought to eliminate the “gun show” loophole, which permitted the purchase of weapons at a gun show without background checks. The Manchin-Toomey Background Checks Bill was voted on in the Senate on April 17 of this year. Public opinion supported it. The NRA did not. The bill fell six votes short of passing.

One senator who voted against the bill was Ohio’s Rob Portman. According to a press release on his site, the bill “punishes law-abiding Ohioans but would not prevent the kind of heartbreaking loss of life seen in Newtown.” In 2010, Portman had been endorsed by the NRA’s Political Victory Fund.

The defeat of the Manchin-Toomey Background Checks Bill was a crushing blow for gun-control advocates. The inability to pass even the weakest of gun reform demonstrated that the government remains in the grip of gun advocacy groups, who see even the slightest restriction on gun sales as a blatant violation of the Second Amendment. Their control over the federal government shows no sign of breaking in the foreseeable future.


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