It was only a single sentence in President Obama’s speech about the Navy Yard shootings, but it spoke volumes about his inability to enact gun control in Congress.
“By now,” Mr. Obama said, “it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington.”
To some gun control advocates, the president’s comment sounded like surrender to supporters of the Second Amendment in Congress, at least for now.
“It says it to me — it says that he’s being realistic and knows that nothing is going to pass,” said Elliot Fineman, president of the National Gun Victims Action Council. “He’s run into the reality that our side has run into for 19 years. They’re not going to get the votes.”
Other supporters of gun control said the president was simply restating starkly his view that Congress won’t act on background checks or other new gun restrictions without sustained pressure from the public.
“What he means is that it’s not going to be the president or advocacy organizations talking directly to politicians that’s going to transform this issue,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “The only way that’s going to happen is if the American public holds our elected officials accountable. And that’s not going to come from within.”
Still, Mr. Obama’s tone lacked an urgency that he expressed in January, when he signed 23 executive actions on gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act — and Congress must act soon,” the president said at the time.
That was before the Senate rejected a measure to require expanded background checks on gun purchasers, favored by a strong majority of Americans in polls.
White House aides said the president hasn’t surrendered on gun control, pointing to two executive actions that he ordered in late August, including a ban on most re-imports of military surplus firearms to private entities. And a week ago, aides noted, Mr. Obama said in an interview with Telemundo that he’s doing everything he can to curb gun violence.
“I’ve taken steps that are within my control,” he said. “The next phase now is for Congress to go ahead and move.”
But on the same day that his interview aired, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters the background check issue remains stalled.
“We don’t have the votes,” the Nevada Democrat said.
The congressional calendar also could be working against the administration’s efforts to enact new gun restrictions. The time remaining in the current session will be consumed with contentious budget negotiations over defunding Obamacare, raising the nation’s borrowing limit and ending the sequestration budget cuts.
And next year is a mid-term election, when lawmakers typically show even less appetite for taking on a hot-button issue such as gun control.
Mr. Fineman, whose organization called for a boycott of the Starbucks chain because of its policy of allowing gun owners to carry firearms legally in its shops, said Congress won’t address gun control unless the public exerts economic pressure in their states. Those and other boycott threats pressured the coffee-shop chain to publicly request that gun owners not bring weapons into the stores.
“We would target a couple of these states — Wyoming for example, where both senators voted against the background check law,” Mr. Fineman said. “We would simply let those senators know that if they didn’t vote for the law, we would call for a boycott of their state. If you don’t vote for it, we’re going to hurt your state, big time. This country runs on money. It’s as simple as that.”
Mr. Gross of the Brady Campaign said his group still sees opportunities for persuasion in the Senate, mentioning specifically Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican who voted against the background check measure in April.
“You have to look at this in the context of what it takes to pass a sensible gun law,” Mr. Gross said. “The Brady Law took six votes over seven years to pass.”
He said it was a positive sign for gun control advocates that six senators who had received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association voted for expanded background checks last spring.
“That’s genuine progress,” Mr. Gross said. “That progress came about, we believe, because of the leadership of the White House but more importantly because of a new level of engagement among the American public. It may not be tomorrow, it may not be within the next year, but we are on a trajectory that gives us hope and inspiration that we will get there.”