Washington — Memories of a national tragedy usually dim quickly. But the deaths of 20 first-graders and six teachers in Newtown appear to be doing what other mass shootings have been unable to do — provoke action against gun violence, perhaps in Washington, but more certainly in state capitals across the country.
In creating a Cabinet-level panel led by the vice president, President Obama is showing that he has made gun control a priority and is willing to spend political capital on an issue he ignored in his first term.
The first 10 bills introduced in the new Congress would toughen gun laws. More than a dozen state legislatures in addition to Connecticut’s have introduced bills, or plan to introduce bills, to tighten control of firearms. Other states are expected to follow.
But in addition to the official action is what feels like a more organic push, with a shift — albeit small — in the polls showing that public opinion of gun issues has shifted, and the involvement of the national PTA and of mothers — in the form of a Million Mom March set for the end of January.
In the days after the elementary school murders, even veteran lawmakers, advocates and others in national government said the culture had finally hit a tipping point.
“Every time there’s a mass shooting there’s a swell of media attention and public outrage, then it subsides,” said Sam Hoover, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Reporters used to say, ‘Tell me this is the moment,’ and I couldn’t.
“Now I realize this is finally it.”
The White House mobilizes
Erich Pratt agrees. The spokesman for Gun Owners of America said Thursday, “I do think there’s a mood change” in the nation about gun control.
But, he said, it’s not a result of outrage over Newtown, but rather the work of opportunistic politicians. “Obama is using this opportunity to try to exploit a tragedy, to do something he’s wanted to do all along,” Pratt said.
When he campaigned for his Senate seat, Obama supported the reinstatement of a federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. But the president scarcely mentioned gun control in two campaigns for the White House or in his first term.
In fact, Obama signed two measures promoted by the gun lobby into law. One lets tourists carry guns in national parks. Another allows guns in checked luggage on Amtrak trains. However, both measures were in larger bills the president was under pressure to sign. The national parks measure, for instance, was included in Obama’s stimulus bill.
But in his actions after the Newtown tragedy, Obama appears to be aiming to add to his legacy, and is expected to use his bully pulpit to lobby for gun control in his State of the Nation address in February.
The panel headed by Vice President Joe Biden is trying to undercut the gun lobby’s considerable political strength by enlisting the help of diverse allies, from hunters to teachers, in a massive mobilization to get voters to exert pressure on lawmakers.
The coalition wooed by the White House includes law enforcement officials, mayors — including avid gun control advocate Michael Bloomberg of New York — educators, mental health experts and retailers, including Wal-Mart.
The task force is also considering the role of movies and video games on gun violence and met Thursday with entertainment executives that included former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America.
National PTA President Betsy Landers was also among dozens invited to meet with Biden’s task force this week.
Although the Biden panel’s final recommendations aren’t fully known, Landers said her organization supports three measures the White House is considering. Those include reinstating the ban on assault weapons, outlawing high-capacity magazines and closing loopholes allowing buyers at gun shows and from private sellers on the Internet to avoid federal background checks.
“(The) PTA attended the meeting as representatives of our nation’s families and millions of PTA members nationwide,” said James Martinez, spokesman for the National PTA.
And some of the groundswell for gun control is clearly born out of emotion: The founders of an anti-gun Million Mom March in 2000 quickly planned another event in Washington, D.C. It will occur Jan. 26.
NRA on the defensive
With so many new fronts to battle, the National Rifle Association finds itself playing defense after years of running an aggressive — and winning — campaign to weaken gun control in Washington and state capitals. The gun lobby even had a huge victory in 2008 at the Supreme Court when it promoted a successful challenge of the District of Columbia’s total ban on guns.
After meeting with the Biden group Thursday, the NRA issued a blistering statement.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” it said. “While claiming that no policy proposals would be ‘prejudged,’ this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners — honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans.”
In a reference to Newtown, the NRA statement said, “we will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.”
Silent for a week after the Sandy Hook massacre, the NRA finally responded by suggesting that all schools have armed guards. The organization said Thursday it was launching a lobbying blitz on Congress.
“We will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works — and what does not,” the NRA statement said.
States taking the lead
For all of the 11 years he’s worked for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Hoover said he’s been frustrated by Congress’ unwillingness to approve gun control regulations.
“You get a lot of Democrats introducing bills every year and the gun lobby just laughing them off,” Hoover said.
Despite the massive efforts from the White House, this year may not be any different, but he said he’s hopeful. “I really think something positive is going to come from (Newtown),” Hoover said.
Even if efforts fail in Washington, Hoover is certain that gun control measures will be approved this year in state legislatures.
States with comparatively tough gun laws — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois — are looking to tighten gun laws, as are some states with moderately tough gun laws, like Maryland and Delaware.
But Newtown has even prompted legislators in states where the gun lobby is traditionally strong, Colorado, Virginia, Arizona, Missouri and Vermont, to consider new restrictions.
That’s unprecedented. Even when a gunman tried to assassinate former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Tucson, the state of Arizona did not consider new gun laws.
Nor were there efforts to restrict gun ownership in Colorado after the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 or last year in a theater in Aurora.
Hoover welcomes the new gun control legislation in state legislatures, and predicts the efforts will expand to more states. “We are going to achieve something,” he said. “But it’s still too early. We don’t know what (Newtown’s) legacy will be.”
But the advocate was clear about what should take place: “[I]t’s comprehensive, federal regulation that this country needs,” Hoover said.
Newtown was also the tipping point for Giffords and astronaut husband Mark Kelly, who visited the town last week.
Giffords hopes to provide gun control advocates with something they have generally lacked — political cash — by establishing a new political action committee to counter the gun lobby’s millions of dollars.
“Until now, the gun lobby’s political contributions, advertising and lobbying have dwarfed spending from anti-gun violence groups. No longer,” Giffords and Kelly said in an op-ed piece in USAToday.
Bloomberg has also committed his wealth to the project, and a number of wealthy Obama backers are also committed to the cause.
But even Obama says the political fight over gun control will be brutal.
With that in mind, Biden said the White House is willing to use its executive authority to try to tighten gun laws. But without legislation, there is little the president can do.
Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, said gun rights advocates will push back, and seek an end to a federal ban on guns in and near schools.
“Newtown underscores the danger of encouraging these gun-free school zones,” Pratt said. “It was an invitation for (shooter) Adam Lanza.”
Pratt also said that some public sentiment may have shifted after Newtown, but ultimately majorities support the Second Amendment’s gun rights.
“The Constitution hasn’t changed,” Pratt said.