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.

"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.

None of that's happening this time. One difference is that this shooting rattled Congress itself; most of Wednesday was spent on that Giffords resolution and on prayer services for other victims. But more important, this is not the Congress that passed the PATRIOT Act or the post-Virginia Tech bill. It's the Tea Party Congress. That was never clearer than when dozens of freshmen and staunch conservatives who are popular in the movement lined up to sign the Giffords condolence book, then explained to reporters why the worst possible response to the tragedy would be some new bill—on guns, on mental health, on anything.

"If I'm shot," Gohmert told me, "I want it prosecuted under the laws of the state of Texas, not federal law. That's just the way it is. There's just a lot more teeth in the state law. And if somebody pursues me and shoots me because of hatred for a group I'm part of, then I don't want it prosecuted under the hate-crime law that was so entirely unnecessary."

Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., ruled out any gun laws immediately and suggested that local law enforcement was in the best position to prevent any future Tucsons. A mental health bill? "In California, we had a special income tax for mental health funding," he said. "It's since been rescinded, since we ran out of money! And I'm not sure you can point to that as a way to solve this. The question is, was this guy out there enough that people would have felt comfortable to haul him off to the funny farm, to use the old term of art?"

This might explain why so much of the discussion of Tucson has focused on factors that, according to what we know, had nothing to do with Tucson. Members of Congress from both parties fielded question after question today about whether they'd change their tone. Midway through the morning, the national dialogue turned to a video from Sarah Palin, who'd become the mascot for pre-Tucson mixing of gun metaphors and political metaphors. By the afternoon, Politico had five ready links to the Palin debate, including "Sarah Palin charges critics with 'blood libel,' " "Republicans disappointed at Palin," and the more meta "Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' claim draws criticism."

That criticism was led by Congress. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., used his time during the Giffords tribute to read off a list of "pretty awful" remarks by Republicans, which apparently had nothing to do with Loughner's decision to empty a clip into innocent people at a congressional event. Why not debate Palin, and why not debate the tone? By the end of Wednesday there was a USA Today/Gallup poll revealing that only 35 percent of Americans thought it was legitimate to blame conservatives for the tragedy, but only around 20 percent wanted more gun control. Recall why the Palin connection was made so often in the media. Giffords, a gun owner and Second Amendment supporter, said in a 2010 interview she worried about the "consequences" of Palin's "target" map. She did not say she suddenly supported more gun control.

Supporters of McCarthy's bill, like Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., were left to argue that they needed a shift in the national sentiment if they were going to get their way.

"We've got to go beyond specific, limiting legislation," said Holt. "We've got to change our gun-crazed society." He smiled wryly at what he'd just said. "Not easy to do!"

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