Washington — Riding 400 miles from Newtown, 26 bicyclists hoping to change the nation’s gun laws faced some strong headwinds on their way to Washington, D.C. When they reached the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, they faced even more — of the political kind.
It’s been nearly a year since a bill that would increase FBI background checks on gun buyers failed to clear a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. The House has not taken up any gun control legislation and doesn’t seem inclined to do so.
But for the members of “Team 26” and their allies in the Connecticut congressional delegation, things are on track.
“Some said the Connecticut effect would not last, and they are right,” said Monte Frank, an experienced cyclist who heads Team 26, a group of activists from Newtown and other towns that have suffered from gun violence. “It’s now a movement.”
Frank and many of the riders who pedaled through Ridgefield and Greenwich, Harlem, Doylestown, Pa., and Baltimore to reach the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building Tuesday did much the same thing a year ago, wearing the same green and white windbreakers that honor Newtown’s 26 victims of gun violence.
At a press conference organized by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, Frank said Team 26 could be “Team 30,000” because that’s how many Americans have died from gun violence since shooter Adam Lanza massacred 20 first graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14, 2012.
“We are merely bike messengers…to deliver a message to Congress: Put politics aside and get this done to protect our children,” he said.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have exerted enormous pressure on members of Congress, threatening to back the political rivals of those who vote for gun control with the help of massive war chests.
With the impasse in Congress, the gun control movement has accepted the likelihood that federal gun laws won’t change anytime soon.
“We have learned that the brick wall of the gun lobby is tough,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “We can’t predict what day we will prevail.”
Still, there was plenty of Congress bashing.
“America should be watching the Congress because those 30,000 (deaths) make it an aider and abettor of gun violence,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said “the U.S. Congress is complicit” in gun murders.
“The inaction of Congress is a scandal, “ said the Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the Washington National Cathedral and a gun-control activist. “This is not a morally ambiguous issue.”
Yet Blumenthal pointed out that after former President Ronald Reagan was almost assassinated by a shooter, it took 12 years for Congress to approve new gun-control legislation.
Not all members of Team 26 come from Connecticut. Most are skilled amateurs.
Omar Samaha, a Virginia resident, took the 400-mile trip to honor his sister Reema, who was killed in the Virginia Tech shooting.
He urged congressional approval of the legislation that failed in the Senate last year that would close FBI background check loopholes, including the one that allows purchasers at gun shows to avoid these screenings.
Samaha said he attended a gun show in Richmond, Va., and was able to buy 10 guns “in less than an hour.”
“It was as easy as buying a bag of chips at a grocery story,” Samaha said.
Frank said he was not dissuaded by the number of states that loosened gun laws after Sandy Hook — many more than those like Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado that tightened them.
Frank said comparing these states was “apples and oranges” because states that tightened gun laws made drastic changes and those that weakened them resulted in little change.
He said he was heartened by the support Team 26 received in its long ride to Washington, D.C., including from the police in Morristown, N.J., who got out of their cruisers to salute the riders and the man in Pennsylvania who shouted, “Don’t give up y’all. Don’t give up.”