2013: The Year We Learned Gun Reform Is Impossible

The urgency wrought by 2012’s horrors yielded no tighter firearm restrictions from Congress.

Rabbi Andy Bachman (2nd R) participates in a protest outside Cerberus Capital Management, a financial firm that holds a majority stake in Freedom Group, a company that produces assault rifles, to call on them to divest in Freedom Group, on December 9, 2013 in New York City.
National Journal
Dec. 10, 2013, 9:15 a.m.

Noth­ing in 2013 matched the hor­ror of Sandy Hook or Au­rora, but the year proved to be a dis­pir­it­ing one for gun-con­trol cru­saders hop­ing to cap­it­al­ize on the in­tense out­pour­ing of grief wrought by 2012’s shoot­ing mas­sacres.

After New­town, Pres­id­ent Obama gave an im­pas­sioned speech prom­ising to do everything in his power to pre­vent “more tra­gedies like this.” We’d watched these scenes of pub­lic mourn­ing be­fore — after Tuc­son, after Au­rora — but it was dif­fer­ent this time. Obama’s bold de­clar­a­tion that “we are not do­ing enough and we will have to change” seemed more force­ful than be­fore. And com­ing just six weeks after his reelec­tion, it seemed more pos­sible.

But once the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation and oth­ers got a whiff of any ser­i­ous threat to fire­arm freedoms, they moneyed up. Al­though gun-con­trol groups spent five times as much on fed­er­al lob­by­ing in 2013 as they did in 2012, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Sun­light Found­a­tion, gun-rights groups out­paced them by more than 7-to-1.

As usu­al, the NRA’s ef­forts paid off. Watered-down le­gis­la­tion that would have ex­pan­ded back­ground checks failed in the Sen­ate this past spring, and the is­sue re­took its place in Con­gress as a per­en­ni­al non­starter.

And the shoot­ings con­tin­ued.

But Con­gress de­livered gun-re­form ad­voc­ates one fi­nal 2013 dis­ap­point­ment this week. The Sen­ate on Monday voted to re­new the Un­detect­able Fire­arms Act just hours be­fore the 25-year-old law was set to ex­pire. The 10-year ex­ten­sion, which even the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation en­dorsed, is largely gen­teel. It keeps on the books a ban on fire­arms that can sneak through met­al de­tect­ors, but ef­forts by Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., to close what he called a “dan­ger­ous loop­hole” al­low­ing a per­son to use 3-D print­ing tech­no­logy to craft a plastic gun failed to get off the ground. Schu­mer wanted to amend the law to re­quire that fire­arms have per­man­ent met­al pieces in them.

Gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates have seen some move­ment out­side of Con­gress. In Septem­ber, Star­bucks CEO Howard Schultz de­clared guns un­wel­come in his stores, even in states with open-carry laws. Col­or­ado’s State House passed stricter gun laws, though mem­bers did so at great polit­ic­al per­il. Con­necti­c­ut ad­op­ted some of the strict­est in the na­tion, des­pite be­ing home to sev­er­al gun man­u­fac­tur­ers. And Obama did pass a num­ber of ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders that make small in­roads, such as re­strict­ing the im­port of mil­it­ary sur­plus weapons and or­der­ing fed­er­al agen­cies to share more data with the back­ground-check sys­tem.

But na­tion­al law­makers in 2013 did what they do every year when it comes to tight­en­ing gun re­stric­tions: noth­ing.

“It should be a source of great em­bar­rass­ment to the U.S. Sen­ate and House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives that we have not moved the ball for­ward one inch when it comes to the is­sue of pro­tect­ing the thou­sands of people all across this coun­try who are killed by guns every year,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., be­fore Monday’s vote of the Un­detect­able Fire­arms Act, which passed by un­an­im­ous con­sent.

2012’s gun vi­ol­ence brought us un­pre­ced­en­ted grief. But 2013 re­minded us just how im­possible it is to move that ball for­ward. If a de­ranged man killing 20 kids and six teach­ers at an ele­ment­ary school won’t prompt mean­ing­ful gun re­form, it’s hard to ima­gine what will.

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