Supporters of Stricter Gun Laws Look Back on 2013 in Despair

A Sandy Hook Elementary School bus in Newtown, Conn., in January 2013.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Dec. 15, 2013, 6:19 a.m.

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.

The les­son?

“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.”

Alex Seitz-Wald contributed to this article.
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