By: Amber Phillips
Sandy Hook was supposed to be a game-changer in the national gun control debate.
After 20 children and six educators were gunned down at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last year, Americans’ support for federal gun control laws surged in polls, President Barack Obama threw his weight behind the issue with a task force and U.S. Senate leaders from both parties took up major legislation.
But a bill to expand background checks failed in the Senate, Obama’s priorities turned to other topics and polls soon leveled out. Many states even went in the opposite direction and passed laws expanding gun rights.
In short, one of the nation’s most horrific mass shootings hasn’t produced meaningful change on the national level one year later.
“There is a level of outrage that nothing has changed since Sandy Hook,” said Robert Cox, a Newtown resident and president and co-founder of the community group Sandy Hook Promise, which advocates for meaningful conversation about gun laws. “Outrage and despair.”
But Cox and other gun control activists contend that their short-term failures mask a deeper change that may take years to manifest. They say Sandy Hook has invigorated a long-dormant effort to mobilize for against the powerful pro-gun lobby, which has had a running head start.
“We are in a fundamentally different place today than we were a year ago,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been one of the leaders for gun law reform in Congress. “For my first six years in Congress, you’d get laughed at if you claimed that a bill strengthening gun laws had any chance of passing the House and Senate. Now we are regularly debating the merits of different proposals to strengthen gun law.”
While talk of gun control laws in Congress is still just talk, supporters say their movement is transforming with impressive victories at the state level.
Twenty-one states have strengthened their gun laws since Dec. 14, and most of those changes were substantial, said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney for the nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which partnered with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to score states’ gun laws since Sandy Hook.
Eight states closed loopholes on background checks. Five states banned or strengthened bans on high-capacity magazines. Four states now require gun owners to report when their firearm is missing or stolen, and four states strengthened assault weapons laws.
“We’ve made unthinkable progress,” said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign. He joined Cutilletta and other gun control advocates in a conference call with reporters Monday to discuss states’ progress on gun reform.
Still, gun control activists are measuring success from a baseline of near zero. Cutilletta said in any year before Sandy Hook, if one or two states had strengthened their gun laws, “We would have considered it a major victory.”
“The momentum is growing, and it’s all really new,” she said. “What you’re seeing is the beginning of something.”
It’s not clear yet if that momentum will translate to long-term success against one of the most powerful, well-organized, and well-funded lobbies in America.
At least 20 states since have expanded gun rights laws this past year in what experts say is part of a national trend to loosen gun laws, which the Sandy Hook shootings did little to abate.
Pro-gun supporters say that’s because the nation is behind them. Inan October Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans polled said gun laws should be more strict, down from a high of 58 percent after the attack.
In North Carolina, gun owners can now carry concealed firearms in local parks, playgrounds, bars, restaurants and in locked compartments of vehicles on campuses.
“It’s probably the largest advance we’ve made in the history of the state,” said Paul Valone, the founder and president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a powerful gun rights group in the state.
Valone said if anything, his organization has been even more active since Sandy Hook courting gun owners, encouraging them to vote and threatening politicians who don’t support their position.
“We will not compromise on gun control,” he said. “I’ll hold any legislator’s feet to the fire.”
That kind of sustained activism is the most effective way to steer America’s attitudes and laws on guns, said Philip Cook, a senior associate dean at Duke University’s school of public policy.
The author of several books on America’s gun debate, Cook has experienced first hand the pro-gun movement’s infiltration of all levels of society.
“It’s not necessarily that they believe any stronger than the gun control people, but that they just go out and vote and write letters and buy books,” he said. “Books that support pro-gun viewpoints sell like hotcakes. Books that don’t, don’t sell.”
It’s going to take a long time for the gun control advocates to gather that kind of support, Cook said.
But gun control supporters say they’re not worried: Meaningful legislation has to first come from social change, and social change begins, not ends, with a major national event like Sandy Hook.
Supporters point to the fact it took multiple assassinations — including the murder of the president in 1963 — and years of city riots and gun violence before Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulated interstate gun sales.
The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which instituted background checks for some firearm sales, passed Congress only after six votes in seven years. Supporters trace its roots to a nearly successful assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan more than a decade earlier, in which White House press secretary James Brady was shot and partially paralyzed.
Since then, Congress has allowed a ban on assault weapons expire. This week it renewed a ban on plastic guns that can evade metal detectors, but gun control supporters said it doesn’t go far enoughin the face of new technology like 3D printing.
“It’s sometimes a long wait, and the process is indirect, but I think it is a situation where you have to be patient or you’re going to be denying history,” Cook said.
Sen. Murphy echoed Cook’s call for a long-term strategy.
“I think this is a long game that’s going to involve multiple election cycles and a gradual strengthening of the gun law reform movement,” he said.
But since Sandy Hook, gun control advocates believe that their side has been energized to do the work it will need to win new legislation. And if — or maybe when — another horrific attack happens, they will have another chance to make their case
“You have to remind [people] that it can happen in their town,” Cox of Sandy Hook Promise said. “If it happened in our town, I’m telling you, it can happen anywhere.”