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Why There Have Been Few New Federal Laws After Each School Shooting


Cameron Kasky is one of many people calling for increased restrictions on guns. Meanwhile, many Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, say that should not be the immediate response.


PAUL RYAN: This is not the time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts. We've got a lot more information we need to know.

MCEVERS: And so goes the debate that often follows a school shooting - right? - a debate that usually ends in a stalemate. So we asked Adam Winkler to walk us through how these debates have played out in the past. He's a UCLA law professor who has written extensively on gun control. And we started with the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: Good evening, everyone. The reaction of so many people today was, oh, no, not again - another high school. Columbine...

MCEVERS: After that shooting, how did the conversation turn to gun control? Like, what happened in Congress?

ADAM WINKLER: Well, Columbine was a very-high-profile shooting that did encourage many Americans to think seriously about gun control and especially because this was a mass shooting committed by kids at a high school.


BILL CLINTON: Last spring, the brutal shootings at Columbine gave a life-and-death urgency to the call for strengthening our nation's gun laws.

WINKLER: And the Senate very narrowly approved increased background checks.


CLINTON: Congress has kept the American people waiting long enough.

WINKLER: But the bill failed to get the vote in the House.

MCEVERS: And so where did it go from there?

WINKLER: Well, it became a big issue in the presidential campaign of 2000. Al Gore's embrace of gun control led Republicans and the NRA to give a series of speeches that emphasized Gore's opposition to gun rights. Those speeches were often credited for costing Al Gore Tennessee, his home state, and ultimately the election.

MCEVERS: So then let's move forward to Virginia Tech...


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: It is an act of evil on a scale that we've never seen in this country before.

MCEVERS: ...April 16, 2007.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: In a Virginia Tech dormitory, a lone gunman shot and killed two people beginning what would become the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history.


WINKLER: The Virginia Tech shooting did spur a successful effort to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, our background check database for firearms purchases, including providing more incentives for states to accurately report all of the mental health adjudications.

MCEVERS: And this is a bill that passes Congress.

WINKLER: Yes, this bill passed Congress. It was successfully adopted. But it was also a very narrow law that only did a little bit to encourage states to improve reporting to the background check system, which remains flawed.

MCEVERS: And then there of course is 2012.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #3: The bodies of most of the children killed this morning remain inside Sandy Hook Elementary School tonight.

MCEVERS: Twenty-year-old man kills 20 children and seven adults.


BARACK OBAMA: The majority of those who died today were children - beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.

MCEVERS: You have the president talking to the nation, crying.


OBAMA: We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics.

MCEVERS: What happens?

WINKLER: Nothing.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We begin with a victory for gun rights groups and a stinging defeat for gun control.

WINKLER: In the wake of Newtown, we see no new federal gun laws passed.


INSKEEP: Senate Republicans joined a small group of Democrats to reject every major gun control proposal President Obama has been pushing since the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

MCEVERS: You know, people feel like if anything is going to move people, it's going to be this one. It's kids. And yet that is not what happens.

WINKLER: There's no possibility of a unifying moment because gun control advocates and gun rights advocates fundamentally disagree on causation. Gun advocates believe that the answer to gun violence is more guns.


WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

WINKLER: Gun control advocates simply disagree with that whole line of analysis, and it's hard to find compromise when the two sides just don't agree on the basic way to stop gun violence.

MCEVERS: Then we get to 2015 and a school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.


OBAMA: Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.

MCEVERS: And I think the question on everyone's mind is just, like, why can't major gun control laws pass Congress?

WINKLER: Well, in fairness, it's hard to imagine any significant law on a controversial issue passing Congress these days, particularly on the issue of guns, though. It's a very divisive issue, and many members of Congress feel that supporting gun control will hurt them in the next election.

MCEVERS: Even though there's - you know, polls show there's overwhelming support among people for things like background checks.

WINKLER: Polls don't tell us much in a democracy because they don't measure intensity. A lot of people can say they support gun control, but if they're not going to vote on the basis of gun control, then that polling data is just not that helpful.

MCEVERS: At the national level, do you think there's anything at all, any kind of gun legislation, gun policy that has a prayer of passing?

WINKLER: I think that in the next year, it's likely we will see new gun laws passed by Congress, but they're laws that are going to ease restrictions on guns, make it easier, for instance, to buy silencers. They are not going to be new laws that restrict guns. They're going to be laws that make it easier to access and carry guns.

MCEVERS: Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America." Thank you so much for your time today.

WINKLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.