The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords leaves members of Congress at a loss in more ways than one.

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Jan. 12 2011 7:24 PM

The Solution: Do Nothing

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords leaves members of Congress at a loss in more ways than one.

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Representative Mike Pence. Click image to expand.
Rep. Mike Pence 

Barney Frank had left the floor of the House for a moment. Dozens of his fellow members were in the chamber saluting the work of their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the lives of six people who were killed when a gunman opened fire at one of her public meetings. I stopped Frank to ask him what he thought of the bill, soon to be introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., to ban the high-capacity magazines that the alleged shooter had used.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"The Republicans are in power and have generally opposed it," said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. I started to point out that some of Frank's fellow Democrats were arguing that Saturday's tragedy changed the legislative picture because it directly affected a member of the House. Frank politely interrupted me.

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"I'm sorry, don't argue with me," he said. "Have you read what John Boehner said? Do you know who Republicans are? I'm telling you what they say, and you're going to give me a logical argument for it? There's always been a separate argument for how much you should be able to shoot without reloading. It doesn't interfere with your right to defend your home, or shoot a deer, or anything. But given the Republicans' religious view of this, I don't see how it's going to happen."

It's unusual that a political assassination attempt doesn't prompt a debate on gun control. On Monday, I reported that the most likely response from legislators to the Giffords shooting would happen in Arizona, not Washington, and it would be an expansion of gun rights, rather than a restriction of them: The theory is that armed citizens or legislators could act more quickly to stop a future Jared Lee Loughner. Sam Stein reports today that gun-control activists are looking past Congress, to the states, for any possible wins.

So maybe Frank was right. Maybe it was a waste of time for me to spend most of Wednesday asking members of Congress what sort of odds gun-control- or mental-health-funding legislation had. Some members tactfully explained that discussion like this could wait for another day. Others reacted to the question as if they'd been asked whether there should be stiffer regulations on what kind of shoes dragons are allowed to wear.

"I maintain, as Americans have believed since the American founding, that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens make communities safer, not less safe," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a potential presidential candidate, of the magazine-ban legislation. When it was pointed out that citizens aren't allowed to own, say, machine guns, he criticized the attitude of a city where this could even be asked. "I think, particularly in Washington, D.C., the desire is to move immediately off and find something else to blame, and find some public policy that's wanting. I think what we had here was a despicable human being."

There are now at least four federal legislative responses to the Tucson tragedy: McCarthy's bill; a bill from Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., to criminalize some violent imagery; a bill from Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., to ban firearms within 1,000 yards of federal officials; and, paradoxically, a bill from Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert to allow members of Congress to carry their guns inside the Capitol. (It's legal in Texas!)

After some tragedies, there have been instant surges of support for legislation sold as preventative. The PATRIOT Act sailed through in 2001. After the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, McCarthy sponsored—and President Bush signed—legislation to connect mental-health records more closely to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system.