President Barack Obama has twice in the last month evoked the killing of Trayvon Martin in urging lawmakers to re-examine laws that “encourage the kind of violent encounter that we saw there.”
Yet tapping into the emotional energy surrounding the case of the dead Florida teen has created no real momentum among lawmakers to reinvigorate the stalled gun control debate.
After Martin's death and the Newtown massacre in 2012 and a string of high-profile murders in urban communities earlier this year, including the shooting of a Chicago honor student killed a week after she marched in Obama’s second inaugural parade, the Obama administration and many Democrats pushed a robust gun safety agenda.
But Republicans stymied a bipartisan deal on new federal gun control measures that included universal background checks on gun purchases, and since then, conversation around guns has largely gone mute.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a pro-gun control group, that a vote on a background checks bill would happen no sooner than 2014 ahead of the midterm elections, because Congress will be knee deep in the muck of spending and debt ceiling fights.
“I think sometime next year we’ll revisit that issue,” Reid told the group, according to The Nation. “I’m almost certain of it.”
New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the country’s staunchest (and wealthiest) gun-control advocates, blasted Congress for its inaction and took particular umbrage with Reid’s excuse for the delay.
“They have the budget to worry about? Well, they can't do two things at once? When they want to do something in their own interest, they manage to do it,” Bloomberg said during a radio show appearance last week. “We’re going to keep going after senators that won't [support gun control].”
If Congress won’t act, Bloomberg said, “we’ve got to have the public get up and say ‘We're not going to take it. We’re going to vote for somebody else.’”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a mother of five from Indiana who formed the group after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, said she did not expect much movement on gun control after the failure last spring.
“I didn’t expect much, frankly, but you’re always hopeful. What it really did was galvanize America,” Watts, whose organization has grown to include over 100,000 members and a chapter in every state, told msnbc. “I would say more than any other point in this country there is an extreme desire to force Congress and state legislatures to pass stronger gun laws.”
During a speech in the White House press briefing room on July 19, Obama called for a deeper dialogue on race and guns in America. He acknowledged that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to be involved in gun violence. Obama talked about the Martin incident again on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“What I’m trying to do is just make sure that we have a conversation and that we’re all asking ourselves, are there some things we can do to foster better understanding and to make sure we don’t have laws in place that encourage the kind of violent encounter that we saw there, that resulted in tragedy,” Obama said.
Members of the Black Caucus have been outspoken on the need for gun safety legislation.
Following a bloody Fourth of July holiday weekend in Chicago in which at least 72 people were shot, 12 of them fatally (bloody even by Chicago standards), local Congressional Black Caucus members convened an “emergency” summit on urban gun violence. Members met with clergy, law enforcement, activists and victims of gun violence at Chicago State University to discuss ways in which Congress might be able to shape policy around what has and has not worked in addressing urban gun violence issues.
Just days after the holiday bloodshed, CBC members pressed Obama to take more action on federal gun control legislation in a rare meeting between the group of black lawmakers and the president.
Following the meeting, Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, told The Hill that Obama is “totally committed” to passing tough gun control measures, but said the National Rifle Association and obstructionists in Washington have slowed progress in getting anything passed.
“We’ve got to fight harder and the members of the public have to continue to speak out,” Lee said. “It’s up to us; I think they [White House officials] are doing everything that they can do. It’s the House that has not allowed these bills to come to the floor.”
The president is “perplexed as to how Congress could not have moved after the heinous tragedy in Sandy Hook,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas.
“We hoped that there would be more happening but we also recognize the power lobby that the NRA is and the way that the corporate gun lobby has controlled not just the right but some on the left as well,” Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, an advocacy group that organizes and strengthens black political participation, told msnbc. The group has been a staunch critic of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group that has written model legislation across the country for stand your ground laws and so-called “shoot first laws.”
“We also recognize the fact that this Congress is unable to pass a farm bill, let alone something fraught with the kinds of complications of gun control,” Robinson said.
Congress headed out for a 5-week recess on Monday. In the meantime, state legislatures are moving on their own. Some southern and Midwestern states have introduced or passed legislation that further loosen already lax gun laws. Other states, mostly in the northeast, have tightened state gun laws. On Thursday, New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed 10 gun bills that include stiffening penalties for illegal possession and smuggling of guns.
Supporters of federal gun control are still hoping for victory in 2014--if legislators are forced to declare themselves in the spotlight right before the midterm elections.
Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, whose group includes Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, the mother of slain Chicago honor student Hadiaya Pendleton, said she believed the timing Sen. Reid laid out for a vote on a new gun package is “brilliant.”
“I think there is huge value in calling a vote for this in 2014 before the midterm election so that everyone is on record with a yes or no vote on gun reform before Americans go to the polls,” Watts said. “It is brilliant and it will remind people who is not for background checks, while this common sense legislation has the support of 90% of Americans.”