Don’t expect the congressional baseball practice shooting to change anything. Not the venomous partisanship that defines life at the Capitol. Not the public’s dismal opinion of the people they’ve sent to Washington. And certainly not the polarized impasse on gun control.
The torrent of words presaging something different began minutes after the shooting stopped Wednesday morning at the Republicans’ suburban practice field, with the third ranking leader of the House majority and four others grievously wounded. Across town, the Democrats halted their own early morning workout to huddle in prayer for their GOP colleagues. Groups advocating for tighter federal restrictions on firearms asserted hopefully that this time, the debate would shift in their favor.
And Donald Trump made the most emphatic call for national unity during his young presidency. “We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” he said. “We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.”
If the past decade is any harbinger of the weeks ahead, however, all that rhetoric will be forgotten soon enough. It will get lost in the next inevitable wave of toxic arguing between Republicans and Democrats over ideological differences and tactical posturing; or because of the next tussle between the president and Congress for the balance of power; or after the next headline on a policy fight that has nothing to do with background checks or ammunition magazines; or with the latest poll reaffirming how the public trusts Congress much less than any other American institution.
Academics have long referred to this as part of the “issue-attention cycle,” in which matters of serious importance are propelled to the forefront of public, political and press attention by a seismic news event but then remain there only for a short while — until something more immediately dramatic diverts the country’s collective attention elsewhere.
“It’s highly unlikely there will be any kind of serious bipartisan talk about guns,” said political scientist Danny Hayes of George Washington University, who has studied the issue-attention cycles after the series of nationally prominent shootings of the past decade. “And since very little is going to change in the wake of this, that will just reinforce the perception among Americans that Congress cannot figure out a way to break it’s old habits and get something done.”
There’s a history
If that prediction is borne out, the return to congressional dysfunction-as-usual will be an echo of what happened on both occasions during the past two decades when shootings seemed to have scared Congress straight. Each time, the promises of more civility and cooperation — borne in moments when lawmakers are especially angry as well as fearful at their own vulnerability — were supplanted before too long by the reflexive return to politically safer behavior.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was standing on second base in the humid early-morning sunshine when he was struck in the hip by a bullet from a rifle, became the most prominent member of Congress to get shot while in office since the assassination 49 years ago of Democratic Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York.
But the most recent previous attempt to kill a member — which at the time seemed to be just as heinous and out-of-the-blue as the events at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Virginia — happened just six years ago.
That was when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head in a melee outside a suburban Tucson grocery store where she was preparing to meet with constituents. Eighteen others were also shot and six of them died, including her staffer Gabe Zimmerman.
Then, as now, lawmakers returning to the Capitol formed a bipartisan chorus promising to do better as a tribute to their wounded colleague — starting by condemning the sorts of extremist rhetoric that seemed to have helped incubate furies in both would-be killers. (Jared Laughner, the Arizona gunman, never explained his motive and was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Wednesday’s shooter, 66-year-old James Thomas Hodgkinson, died after a shootout with police but had been highly critical of Trump and other GOP leaders on social media.)
Then, as now, members sounded hopeful for a tiny silver lining from a tragedy that had befallen a colleague viewed as having good humor and an exemplary work ethic: Perhaps the incapacitation of Giffords — or the critical injuries to Scalise — might humanize the notion that they were 535 real people driven by some good individual motives and character traits despite their lousy collective reputation.
And then, as now, members stymied in their efforts to impose more federal restrictions on guns professed a belief that a shooting so close to home would persuade a crucial bloc of their stalwart Second Amendment defender colleagues to look at the issue with fresh eyes.
Capitol Hill in the months after the Giffords shooting did not bear out any of that. Gallup’s monthly approval rating for Congress shriveled another 13 points, to the record nadir of 10 percent, during the following year. No gun control legislation got even so far as a subcommittee vote. And the most publicized symbolic tribute members cooked up, turning the State of the Union into a sort of bipartisan date night, was repeated only a couple of times before Democrats and Republicans retreated to their usual sides of the aisle.
The same sense of high expectation, followed by a minimal payoff, had attended the shootings at the Capitol in 1998. Lawmakers from the two parties acted with equivalent amounts of anxiety, and made similar commitments to a revived sense of shared civic purpose, after an armed and mentally unstable man forced his way into the Capitol, charged by happenstance into an office where the entire House GOP leadership had gathered, and killed a pair of Capitol Police officers before he was apprehended.
But two months later, the Republican majority plunged the building into deep partisan turmoil by launching impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, which quickly eclipsed the deaths of Officer J.J. Chestnut and Detective John Gibson as the defining galvanizing event of the year.
To be sure, their deaths did prompt Congress to add 260 uniformed officers to the force, enough to station at least two at each public entrance, and significant annual budget increases for the Capitol Police. And the heroic efforts of the two officers in Scalise’s detail, David Bailey and Crystal Griner, who were wounded while preventing any of the other lawmakers at practice from being felled by the dozens of shots, almost guarantee the Capitol Police will do very well again this year no matter how tight legislative branch appropriations are otherwise.
(Matt Mika, a former House GOP aide who’s now a lobbyist for Tyson Foods, and Zack Barth, a legislative correspondent for Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, also were wounded. Both were working as volunteers assisting the Republican squad.)
At the same time, the hardened lines of the gun control debate were clearly visible just behind all the impassioned bipartisan promises about cooling the rhetoric in the name of improving democracy or at least unifying the Capitol Hill community — starting Thursday night, when it was quickly agreed the 56th annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game for charity should be played as scheduled at Nationals Park.
“We will use this occasion as one that brings us together,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, her voice quavering, said from the well of the House after endorsing the sentiment expressed, to a thunderous standing ovation minutes earlier, by Speaker Paul D. Ryan, his words also suffused with emotion: “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”
On the Senate floor, the most dramatic moment came when Bernie Sanders revealed that Hodgkinson had volunteered on his campaign for last year’s Democratic presidential nomination, which helped cast the shooting in an unmistakably political light.
“I am sickened by this despicable act” the senator said. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values."
Rep. Rodney Davis, the GOP team’s starting catcher, came to the Capitol in his practice T-shirt, bloodied when he scrambled for cover in the first-base dugout during the shootout.
“This could be the first political rhetorical terrorist act,” he told reporters, hours before learning the gunman was from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, just a few miles from the edge of Davis’ own southern Illinois district. “This has to be the breaking point. It’s my breaking point.”
Not every one of his GOP colleagues saw it that way. On a radio station in his upstate New York district, Rep. Chris Collins suggested the political tone set entirely by the other side was what led to the shooting.
“I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric,” he said. “The rhetoric has been outrageous — the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters. Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires.”
Republican leaders last repelled the drive for gun control last summer, when they withstood a series of Senate filibusters and House floor protests by Democrats after 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It seems clear the GOP posture has not shifted.
“I don’t think we know yet enough about the facts of it to know whether if we passed any more laws would have made any difference,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. “In this political climate I think it's inevitable that there'll be some discussion about that.”
Added Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio, who plays for the GOP baseball team but had left practice before the shooting: “I’m not even going to talk about gun control. People are the ones that pull the triggers. Guns don’t kill people.”