The year since the Newtown shooting has taught an enduring lesson on Capitol Hill: This Congress cannot pass gun-control laws.
The lawmakers who support such measures look back on the year with utter disappointment, reasoning that if no change came in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy, it will never happen.
“Anytime you can have little kids, 20 of them, blown away at short range, and you do nothing, nothing? I don’t know,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “And do nothing at a time when the public is saying they want reform, they want some type of reasonable gun safety legislation? I mean, I don’t know what you do.”
Certainly, efforts were made. President Obama issued some small-in-scope executive actions. Pro-gun control groups spent five times more on lobbying than they did the previous year—$1.6 million—which was the most since 2004, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
But pro-gun rights groups’ lobbying efforts dwarfed their opponents, who spent $12.1 million. A bipartisan bill to expand background checks fell five votes short in the Senate. Some states expanded their gun laws, such as Colorado, but at the price of political repercussions; voters recalled two Colorado state legislators because of it, and a third resigned to avoid that fate.
“It can be summarized in three letters: NRA. Period,” Cummings told National Journal. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised. Clearly the American people after Sandy Hook wanted some type of reform, members of the NRA wanted it, the leadership of the NRA didn’t. End of story.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the public has learned a lot about the issue of gun violence since Sandy Hook. “Congress hasn’t learned a thing, and that’s the problem.”
The intensity of the issue has shifted for the public, too. According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, 52 percent of Americans are in favor stricter gun laws and 15 percent want them relaxed. In January, 58 percent wanted stronger laws and 5 percent said they needed to be loosened.
And more states have loosened their laws than tightened them. About two-thirds of new state gun laws end up relaxing restrictions, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which advocates for a change in gun laws, contends that 2013 saw more accomplishments than most realized. She points to new laws in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and elsewhere, along with success in getting Starbucks to reverse its open-carry policy in its stores. She also touted the fact that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms finally has a confirmed director, and that advocates helped elect pro-gun control lawmakers like Cory Booker and Ed Markey to the Senate, while adding that Democrats’ win in Virginia showed that pro-gun control candidates can win outside blue states.
“What I think grassroots activists did, for the first time ever in the history of our country, was to push back. And they did not get the kinds of gains that we would have gotten if Sandy Hook had never happened and if grassroots activism had not started up around the issue,” she said.
Still, Watts acknowledged the unlikelihood of gun control passing this congress. But she and the other moms are committed to the long haul. “We’ve been on the case for 12 months. The gun lobby has had a generation,” Watts said. “For 30 years, they’ve had unfettered access to our members of Congress and our state legislators. And even American businesses—that doesn’t get rolled back overnight.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he will bring up the bipartisan gun proposal, authored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Penn., when he has the four votes he didn’t last spring. Reid ended up casting a “no” vote so that he had the option to bring it back again.
“We fell five votes short, and I would assume that the same thing would happen today if it were called, and that’s disappointing,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told National Journal. “It’s at a standstill, and I don’t want to mislead you. I looked at these votes all the time. I can’t find any Democratic votes from the last go around that are likely to change, and I haven’t heard any Republicans step forward, so we’re stuck.”
As for advocates of gun rights, they say that the politics of gun policy was handled poorly by the administration. Richard Feldman, Independent Firearms Association president and a former NRA lobbyist, said gun owners opposed the Manchin-Toomey bill based on provisions that weren’t even included in the final bill. To them, he reasons, the modest bill had become synonymous with an assault-weapons ban, which wasn’t a part of it.
Rather than “light up the Christmas tree with every gun proposal languishing in Congress,” Feldman said it would have been wiser for the president from the get-go to first push for something limited and structured to get gun owners on board.
“With the gun people, I think he would have been successful,” Feldman said. “But when you throw it all out there, ‘let’s see what happens,’ then you lose control of the discussion both publicly and on Capitol Hill. It’s no surprise to me that nothing happened.”