If gun control were another issue, like Ebola, would congressional leaders of both parties be devoted to finding common ground?
Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, posed the question to msnbc earlier this month. He expressed his frustration over Americans being willing to accept gun-related deaths as part of U.S. culture — a pattern that saw little change in 2014, when progress on gun safety measures came primarily at the state and local level, not from Washington.
“If we can do anything to prevent other families from going through this, and we know we can, we need to get the message out there,” Barden said. “I know that we are on the right track.”
For almost two years, Congress has been in a stalemate about gun-safety legislation, following the failure of the Senate to pass a comprehensive and bipartisan background checks bill last April. In that time, nearly 100 school shootings have occurred on American soil, the FBI says mass shootings are on the rise, and active-shooter and lockdown drills have become part of children’s academic routines.
But activists were cheered by states and municipalities in 2014, doing what Congress won’t: preventing another tragedy like those in Marysville, Washington; Troutdale, Oregon; Las Vegas, Nevada; Isla Vista, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora and Columbine, Colorado; and dozens of others.
The only piece of gun legislation agreed on by both the House and Senate in 2014 was the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this month. The measure calls for $73 million to help prevent felons, fugitives, and domestic abusers from buying guns. It also includes $75 million for a national school safety initiative.
And in July, the Senate held its first-ever hearing on the ties between gun policy and domestic violence. The Senate also confirmed Dr. Vivek Murthy as U.S. surgeon general after his nomination was held up for more than a year. Murthy faced opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and some Republican members of Congress for supporting gun control measures and calling gun violence a threat to public health.
Murthy’s victory in December was the first loss for the NRA in the Senate since 2010, which marks a “harbinger of things to come in this country,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
When gun safety activists realized Washington wasn’t on the path to progress in 2014, they focused on movements within states. In fact, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, 37 states have passed a total of 99 laws to strengthen gun regulations. The movement is stronger than it ever has been because of families in Newtown and survivors of gun violence nationwide. More than 2.5 million supporters, for example, have pledged to Everytown for Gun Safety their commitment to reduce violence.
Gun control saw some important progress around the country in the November midterm elections. Washington state residents passed Initiative 594 by a wide margin, requiring criminal background checks on all firearms sales and transfers in the state, including at gun shows and on the Internet. In a surprising move, Bill and Melinda Gates, the billionaire couple who usually refrain from political involvement, donated $1 million to the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the reform group that sponsored the measure.
Less than two weeks after the midterms, Nevadans for Background Checks — gaining inspiration from Washington — collected and delivered to election officials the largest number of signatures ever gathered for a ballot initiative in the state. The ballot measure could strengthen the screening and reporting of gun purchases by prohibiting felons, domestic abusers, and mentally-ill individuals from buying guns. Activists are also pushing for similar ballot initiatives in Arizona, Maine, and Oregon.
Some states, including Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, passed laws to remove firearms from criminals’ hands. Following the May shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that allows authorities or family members an attempt to obtain a restraining order against a person who poses a significant danger.
Prior to the shooting at Sandy Hook, only two states — California and Rhode Island — had laws on the books that required background checks on all gun sales. The number since has risen to seven to include Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, and Washington. Several groups, including Moms Demand Action and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, continue to focus on expanding background checks.
“We’re in really good shape to keep the momentum going. We have passed more gun laws in the past two years than we have in the previous 10 before that,” Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign, told msnbc. He added that activists saw “unprecedented” gains in gun-control legislation throughout the year.
Disenchanted with the gridlock in Washington, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his campaign for gun safety to the state and local level. He spent more than $20 million of his own money backing ballot measures and candidates from both parties he believed will take a bipartisan approach to governing in polarized times. In 2014 alone, Bloomberg’s group, Everytown, endorsed 115 candidates in both federal and state elections who support commonsense gun laws. “Voters have seen enough,” the former mayor wrote in an op-ed published in November on his company’s site, BloombergView. “I share their frustration, and as a strong believer in the idea that cities and states are the laboratories of democracy, I share their determination to act.”
Among those Bloomberg backed were Democratic Govs. Dannel Malloy in Connecticut and John Hickenlooper in Colorado, both of whom passed comprehensive gun-safety measures following the Sandy Hook shooting. Both men were narrowly re-elected despite being among the NRA’s top targets for defeat.
“Even though this was a difficult year with Democrats, don’t confuse that being a difficult year for gun safety, because it was not,” Watts said.
In August, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a sweeping bipartisan gun-safety legislation that grants police chiefs the authority to prevent certain individuals from obtaining firearms licenses. A Massachusetts district in November unveiled the country’s first installation of a shooter-detection system inside a U.S. school that can recognize and track a gunman roaming through the building.
This year, members of Moms Demand Action took the gun issue to large U.S. retailers. They continue to work on their most recent campaign, which asks that Kroger, the country’s largest supermarket chain, prohibits customers from carrying guns into locations across the country. Beginning with Starbucks last fall, the group has been victorious with influencing changes in open carry gun policies at other popular chains including Target, Sonic Drive-In, Brinker International (parent company of Chili’s Grill & Bar), Chipotle, Jack in the Box, Facebook, and Instagram.
Watts said members are working to help pass other laws, including one against open carry in Texas and another to keep firearms off college campuses.
“To think that somehow this horrible tragedy [at Sandy Hook] was going to immediately reverse all the damage the gun lobby has done over decades overnight is not realistic,” Watts said. “This is going to take months and years. This is not days.”