Nationwide revulsion over the killing of two journalists on live television has prompted fresh calls for gun reform – but campaigners are as far as ever from cutting through the political gridlock that prevents it at many levels of US government.
The father of WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, who was shot dead by a former colleague in Virginia on Wednesday, echoed calls from relatives in other recent shootings by demanding lawmakers put aside worries over supposed constitutional protection for gun ownership and the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.
“Look, I’m for the second amendment [the right to bear arms], but there has to be a way to force politicians that are cowards and in the pockets of the NRA to come to grips and make sense, have sensible laws so that crazy people can’t get guns,” Andy Parker told CNN on Thursday.
“It can’t be that hard. And yet, politicians from the local level to the state level to the national level, they sidestep the issue. They kick the can down the road. This can’t happen any more.”
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s horrific shooting in the town of Moneta, near Roanoke, some gun reform activists expressed hope that the gruesome circumstances of the crime – which was broadcast live on TV and then posted to social media – might finally shock a numbed political class into action.
Colin Goddard, a senior policy advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety, the anti-gun violence coalition backed by the former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the way the shooting unfolded on live television could distinguish it from other incidents that are only read about in the news.
“We got a small glimpse into the horror of what a shooting is like with what happened,” Goddard told the Guardian. “When you get a three-second video of someone actually pointing a gun at somebody else, you hear those gunshots, and you hear the screams, you can actually feel how horrifying and terrifying those events are.”
Goddard said while he did not wish to give notoriety to the killer, Vester Flanagan II, his video encapsulated the daily reality that gun control groups are trying to highlight across the country.
“America does not have a monopoly on disgruntled employees or people suffering mental illness, but what is unique to America is that we give easy access to firearms,” he said.
Goddard is himself a survivor of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, the deadliest gun massacre by a single perpetrator in US history. After a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in that campus shooting, an aggressive campaign for tougher gun laws swept the state of Virginia – but much like efforts at the federal level, they remain stymied.
National reform efforts, first championed by Barack Obama and more recently by Democratic presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton, have focused on passing legislation to close loopholes in the system of background checks required to buy a gun.
But officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms revealed on Thursday that Flanagan had passed a background check and bought the murder weapon used in Wednesday’s shooting, a Glock handgun, legally.
“I have no indication that anything was done illegally or improperly, or any shortcuts were made,” an ATF spokesman, Tom Faison, told the Roanoke Times.
“He could be as mentally ill as the day is long,” he added, “but unless someone has been legally adjudicated as such, they can purchase a firearm.”
It remains unknown to what extent Flanagan struggled with mental illness, if at all; when he worked at WDBJ7, a supervisor told him he should seek help and he showed a pattern of anger-related problems that eventually contributed to his firing from the station.
Even proposed legislation on enhancing background checks, which fell five senators short of the 60 needed to proceed in Congress two years ago, is struggling to gain momentum. One of its original sponsors, Republican Pat Toomey, recently played down reports that the bill could be reintroduced and did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Instead, the NRA has swung behind a much watered-down bill suggested by Texas Republican John Cornyn that would merely encourage states to send more information on mental illness to a national database.
The proposed legislation is opposed by many gun reform groups as an empty distraction, but a version of it has recently been supported by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.
In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has also struggled to push reforms through the state legislature despite making gun safety laws a cornerstone of his legislative agenda. The governor, who is both a gun owner and vocal gun control advocate, on Wednesday vowed to renew his push for stricter gun laws in the wake of the Roanoke shooting.
McAuliffe sought a package of gun control measures in Virginia earlier this year, including a renewal of a monthly limit on handgun purchases, closing a loophole that allows individuals to purchase firearms at gun shows without undergoing a background check, and strengthening laws that would bar people convicted of domestic violence offences from accessing a gun.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature in January blocked any new gun laws from clearing even a senate committee, choosing instead to advance bills that loosened certain restrictions on firearms.