White House Argues Shootings Are Not "New Normal"

White House Argues Shootings Are Not "New Normal"
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At the White House, the concept of “a new normal,” where mass shootings are committed by radicalized Americans on home turf, was rejected out of hand Thursday.

“The president refuses, despite the routine it sometimes sets in, the president refuses to consider this normal,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on the day after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

Democrats on Capitol Hill said the horror of Wednesday’s massacre suggested “America is changing,” as Sen. Chuck Schumer put it. In his view, the deaths of 14 people after a planned and well-armed assault on county co-workers by a young Muslim American and his wife will energize Americans to demand that Congress adopt new gun control legislation. 

Republican lawmakers, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, said gun restrictions in general, and proposed new restrictions tied to the government’s no-fly counterterrorism aviation list, impinge on Second Amendment rights and would not stop determined terrorists or other disgruntled shooters. Expanded mental health care is a key part of the solution, Ryan argued.

Among presidential aspirants, the lessons drawn from the California carnage were as varied as the candidates themselves. Sen. Ted Cruz declared the horror in San Bernardino a terrorist attack and said America is in “a time of war.” Gov. Chris Christie raised the stakes, warning voters they are “in the midst of the next world war.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, an originator of the war theme, said Americans aren’t safe until extremist ideologies are exterminated militarily, especially in Iraq and Syria.

Americans this week are left to sort out whether they should worry most about the voices inside shooters’ heads (mentally unstable criminals), jihadist voices at work on the Internet (radicalized Americans), or the dearth of satisfying answers from U.S. politicians (should there be tougher controls on guns, or more guns, or bigger armies and more air strikes, or fewer refugees?).

President Obama on Thursday, surrounded by officials from the Justice Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence agencies and the White House, appealed for calm and offered reassurances that while San Bernardino’s devastation could be the result of a planned terrorist attack, motivations and other facts remained in question about two assailants, both shot dead by authorities.

As events were unfolding in California Wednesday, Obama was trying to paint a reassuring picture of the U.S.-led coalition strategy against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Interviewed by CBS News, the president expressed the kind of confidence about homeland security that could fray after the FBI’s investigation of the San Bernardino attacks is complete.

"ISIL is not going to pose an existential threat to us,” Obama said. “They are a dangerous organization like al Qaeda was, but we have hardened our defenses, our homeland has never been more protected by more effective intelligence and law enforcement professionals at every level than they are now. The coordination is much better,” he continued.

“If you look at the number of successful terrorist attacks that have occurred, you know, we have disrupted a lot of them, but the dangers are still there and so we just have to keep things in perspective," he said.

Authorities investigating the California killings say Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, an American citizen with a job as a county health inspector, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, opened fire at a social services center, killing some of Farook’s colleagues. The firearms, including semi-automatic rifles they possessed, were legally purchased. They fled in a rented SUV and later died after a shootout with police in which they fired 76 rounds, authorities said. The couple had a veritable arsenal, including pipe bombs and ammunition. Law enforcement and intelligence sources told news organizations that Farook had been in contact with radical extremists under surveillance by U.S. authorities.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, site of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School murders in 2012, teared up as he expressed his frustration to reporters Thursday.

“We’re going to try today,” Murphy said of efforts to renew a push for gun safety legislation. "I don’t know whether we’ll succeed, but at least we’ll show the people of California, of Connecticut, of South Carolina and of Oregon that somebody is listening and reacting to the pain that millions of people are feeling all across the country." 

The effort went nowhere after 26 people died at Sandy Hook, and it seemed just as unlikely to be seen as the answer in the wake of San Bernardino’s tragedy.

RealClearPolitics Congressional Correspondent James Arkin and National Political Correspondent Caitlin Huey-Burns contributed to this report. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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