A little more than a month after Neil Heslin’s little boy was shot and killed along with 19 other first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Heslin sat before a group of Connecticut lawmakers and wondered aloud why any American needed the kind of firepower used in the killings.
“Is there anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question, why anybody in this room needs to have one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips?” Heslin said. Heslin paused for a moment and looked around the room. “And not one person can answer that question or give me an answer.”
“Our rights will not be infringed!” someone called out. “Second Amendment!” yelled another.
Only weeks had passed since Heslin’s son, Jesse Lewis, 6, and his classmates were gunned down. But already the nation’s collective heartbreak was beginning to spiral into hostility and angry debate over America’s deadly obsession with guns.
After Newtown, there were calls for stricter gun-control measures aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of people like Adam Lanza, the killer.
The pendulum of the gun control debate has swung back and forth. There have been victories and failures for gun-safety groups, whose efforts have been largely supported by President Barack Obama, other Democrats, and a broad movement that formed after Sandy Hook. But there’s also been more bloodshed.
By the one-year anniversary of the massacre, more than 745 children had been killed by guns. An average of four more are killed each day.
There have been five mass shootings during Obama’s presidency, and time and again he’s stood before the loved ones of victims and the American people and implored lawmakers to take action.
After the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Obama said “We can’t tolerate this anymore.” He promised to use the power of his office to do whatever was necessary, whatever he could possibly do, to engaged lawmakers and the public to prevent more senseless mass killings.
But just nine months later, a mentally unstable Navy contractor walked into a building at the Washington Navy Yards and killed 12 people.
“It ought to be a shock to us all as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation,” Obama said after the Navy Yard shooting. The president said he feard that mass shootings have become America’s “new normal.”
This is the cycle: carnage energizes gun-safety activists–and that, in turn, stiffens the determination of gun lobbyists not to allow any perceived infringement on the rights to bear arms.
In the year since Sandy Hook, the NRA and a broad coalition of pro-gun groups have staved off efforts to enact meaningful gun-reform laws in many states and on the federal level.
A wave of Republican-led states this year including Louisiana and other mostly Southern and Midwestern states pushed back, introducing legislation that weakens already lax gun laws.
In the spring, Congress failed to pass new gun legislation that included universal background checks on all gun purchases, despite polling that shows upward of 90% of Americans and a majority of gun owners support such measures. And the NRA’s flexing across the country put some red state Democrats in a very precarious position.
In Colorado for example, where state lawmakers had successfully bolstered gun laws, Republicans and gun groups were able to oust a pair of lawmakers who’d supported the legislation in recall elections, and forced a third to resign ahead of the threat of a recall election.
At the same time, recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal polling shows that support for stricter gun control has fallen to pre-Sandy Hook levels.
Just over half of Americans, 52%, now say they want stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. Another 38% believe gun laws should remain the same, and 8% say they would like to see gun laws loosened.
Still, gun-control activists have found slivers of hope. New groups have sprung up across the country, and advocates for tougher gun laws say that organizing has become easier.
While federal action has been stalled, states have taken action. Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and New York have toughened their gun laws. And in Virginia this year, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected governor, running largely on a gun-control platform. The victory would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, given McAuliffe’s public criticism of the NRA.
A coalition of well-financed gun-control groups led mostly by New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona galvanized the gun-control movement in a way not seen in decades.
“We always knew this would be a long fight. The NRA is a $250 million a year organization whose sole purpose is to raise money and sell guns and their business model is to create fear and paranoia where none need exist,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Bloomberg PAC. “They’re not going home and neither are we.”
In the wake of Sandy Hook
As the nation realized how senselessly and how easily the lives of 20 young children were taken on that cold December day last year, there seemed a hunger for something to be done at last.
National polls showed wide support for bolstered measures such as background checks. But that support eventually gave way to push-back from the NRA and the lawmakers they finance and support. After stumbling in the immediate aftermath of the killings, the NRA rebounded and mustered its base, describing the push to strengthen gun laws as little more than an opportunism from the Obama administration and the left. Gun advocates said the tragedy was being used by those whose real goal was to chip away at the Second Amendment.
NRA chief spokesman Wayne Lapierre fired back at those calling for stricter gun control measures with talk of good guys with guns versus bad guys with guns.
Even some Democrats had grown divided on the measures supported by the president, including proposed reforms such as an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.
Still, President Obama and other Democrats took to town halls across the country to make the case for Congress to pass a new, comprehensive gun package that would include legislation on universal background checks, stricter penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchases.
In a bipartisan effort, Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia , and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, co-sponsored legislation that would require background checks for most gun sales. The legislation, known as the Manchin-Toomey amendment, was a scaled down version of the larger Senate bill on guns, which would have required background checks on all gun sales including between private parties. The Manchin-Toomey amendment encouraged states to provide all available records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system.
During the lead-up to a vote on the Senate’s gun bill, Bloomberg’s group announced that it would spend $12 million on ads in more than a dozen states where senators were wavering on their support for the bill.
The fight pit NRA-backed lawmakers in red states against progressive Democrats in blue states, but it also put purple state and Southern Democrats in a delicate position: vote with the party and perhaps feel the wrath of the NRA and gun-loving constituents.
And even without an assault weapons ban, the stripped-down gun package faced obstacles. While Obama had hoped to make gun control a central issue in his second term, America’s economic issues still loomed large. The fiscal cliff, the sequester–all siphoned energy away from the gun control debate.
The Manchin-Toomey bill made it to the Senate floor, where it failed to pass by just 6 votes, failing 54-46 despite emotional pleas from Newtown families and other victims of gun violence.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” President Obama said angrily after the vote.
The defeated background-checks bill may have been the president’s best hope of passing meaningful gun-control legislation in his presidency.
Gun supporters dig in
Since 1968, more Americans have been killed by guns than have died all of the wars in the country’s history, according to analyses of gun deaths in the U.S.
“It’s like a balloon. The pressure had been building and building, and at some point that pressure is going to cause the balloon to pop,” said Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy expert with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “And I think it was the accumulation of incidents where nothing was really done, whether it was Tucson or Aurora, it was I think the daily problem of gun violence that affects rural communities and urban communities. We have 12,000 Americans murdered with guns each year. Over a decade that’s 120,000 people, that’s a lot of families affected, that’s a lot of people affected and nothing really being done.”
In the years preceding the Newtown shootings, Gerney says, there was a mismatched volume in the gun-control debate, and an imbalance “in terms of the power of one side versus the power of the other.”
But that’s changing, he said. “Part of what has happen in this issue, the debate had gotten to a place where what the NRA is pushing for is so extreme, more extreme than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” he said, noting that in 1999 after the massacre in Columbine, the NRA and other groups were on board with the concept of gun show background checks. Even after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, the largest mass killing in U.S. history, Arkadi said the NRA came to the table to discuss more mental health checks in the gun-buying system.
But the group has regressed from its former willingness to consider any limits, and has dug in against conceding any ground.
“What you seen now is a completely extreme opposition and that’s left not just the people who for a long time cared about stronger gun laws, but left most of the American people, Democrats, Republicans, gun owners, non-gun owners and the 80% to 90% of the people that say let’s make it harder for dangerous people to get guns,” he said. “In part, the extremeness of the other side has motivated people, and has made the issue a real consensus builder.”
The NRA did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Glaze, the executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said “the NRA has had this issue to itself for a generation. It is going to take some time to turn it around but that turnaround is on its way.”
“Prior to this latest series of mass shootings, virtually every state in the Union was loosening its gun laws, we’ve largely arrested that process. We’ve toughened laws in some very pro-gun states,” he said.
Between 2006 and Thanksgiving of 2013, there have been 231 mass killings, according to a recent analysis by USA Today.
But while mass shootings grab headlines, the bloodletting in America is more typically the sort of daily urban gun violence, suicides, or accidental deaths that rarely make the top of the national news.
Every 17 minutes a person is killed by a firearm in this country: 87 people a day and 609 every week, according to the CDC. Of that number, about 30 are murdered and another 53 commit suicide.
The murmur of voices of families affected by gun violence seems to be growing louder. Parents and loved ones of victims, from the suburbs to the inner-cities, where thousands of young people die unheralded deaths each year, have begun to organize.
Many joined Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that emerged this year as a formidable voice for gun-control. Founder Shannon Watts, a mother of five from Indiana, formed the group in the shadow of Sandy Hook. The organization has grown to include 100 chapters in 40 states.
“In my opinion, 2013–post-December 14th, 2012–was a watershed year for gun control, because moms finally got involved, and when moms get involved things change,” Watts said.
“For us, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting was really in many ways a 9/11 for moms. It was a wakeup call, not only because 20 six- and seven-year-olds were slaughtered in the sanctity of an American classroom, but because we realized that we weren’t being kept safe by our elected officials, federal or state. “
Eight children and teens are killed each day, Watts said, “and that bell cannot be unrung.”
“Pro-gun activists are worried about losing their guns and moms are worried about losing their children. You tell me who’s going to win,” she said.
Watts said Congress’s failure to pass background check legislation was “deflating” and called lawmakers “cowardly.”
“The gun lobby has been working at this for three decades and it will not be undone overnight,” Watts said. “This is hand-to-hand battle. But if there is no one on our side opposing the gun lobby they will continue to run roughshod. Finally, in my mind, moms are more formidable than any gun lobby in the country.”
Moving forward, gun-control groups say they’ll focus on key states whose political soil seems ripe for new legislation.
A handful of states in the last legislative session came very close to passing gun reform laws, in some cases just a few votes shy. Those states include New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Minnesota. And groups that advocate for tougher gun laws say they hope to capitalize on the momentum built up over the last year.
Former Congresswoman Giffords’ political action committee is already gearing up for next year’s fight, particularly in upcoming House and Senate races.
“It doesn’t have to be a sea change,” Giffords husband, Mark Kelly, told USA Today recently. “We just have to start getting members of Congress to think about their next election differently and know that there is an organization that will support them if there’s a lot of money being spent against them on this issue.”
“Pro-gun activists are worried about losing their guns and moms are worried about losing their children,” says activist Watts. “You tell me who’s going to win.”