Outside the White House, Gun-Control Activists Make a Subdued Call to Action

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Zhang Jun / Xinhua / ZUMA

Supporters of gun-control legislation hold candles during a rally in front of the White House to pay respect for the victims of a deadly shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012

As twilight descended on Washington on Friday afternoon, about 50 gun-control activists clustered on the pavement outside the White House for a candlelight vigil to urge action from the President after a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school left 27 dead, including the gunman.

There will be an appropriate time for chewing over national gun policy, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier Friday, “but I don’t think today is that day.” The activists disagreed. Many toted placards reading “#todayIStheday.” Another hand-scrawled sign bore a fatalistic warning: “Today: Sandy Hook. Tomorrow: ?”

The vigil had a slapdash feel; it was assembled on the fly earlier Friday by a coalition of anti-gun advocates already in Washington for meetings. Preachers, professional activists and sympathetic passers-by offered prayers for the President, testified to how gun violence had impacted their lives or simply joined in chants of “We Shall Overcome.”

Many praised the tone of President Obama’s tearful call for “meaningful action” earlier Friday, during brief remarks delivered in the White House briefing room named for a shooting victim. But they said the sentiments alone were insufficient. “It’s not enough, Mr. President,” said Toby Hoover, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. “It’s just not enough.” Leroy Duncan, an activist from Minnesota, spoke movingly of the 86 Americans who die of gun violence each day. “These people need heroes,” he said. “President Obama, you can be that hero.”

It just wasn’t clear how. Amid the recent spate of mass shootings that have wracked the U.S., even many lawmakers who believe in gun control have been glum about the prospects of imposing the most modest curbs on guns. For all their rallying cries, most of the activists were vague when it came to policy prescriptions. Some echoed Carney’s statement that the day of a massacre wasn’t the right time to delve into details. Others who named specific ideas — from better mental health care to restrictions on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines — said they had little faith that a Congress that has seemingly bowed to the force of the gun-rights lobby would find the courage to act now. “I have no confidence that anything is going to be done,” says Jerald Lentini, a writer and lawyer from Silver Spring, Md. “It’s a matter of political will, and I really don’t see it.”

Gun-rights activists recoil at the practice of harnessing tragedy to promote a political agenda. To many of their opponents, there is no better moment to combat the gun violence than when the wounds are still fresh from the senseless deaths Friday morning of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the rampage that also killed six adults and ended with the death of the 20-year-old gunman.

“Nothing is more powerful than a classroom of kindergarten kids getting killed by assault weapons,” says Bob Edgar, a preacher and former Democratic Congressman who is now the president and CEO of the liberal advocacy group Common Cause. Or, as a government employee who wandered over to the vigil from work put it: “It helps that it was a bunch of white children in a school.”

As the activists chanted, a few dozen members of the crowd raised flickering candles in the gathering darkness. Some brushed away tears, their lips quivering. Christmas lights festooning the tree under the White House’s front portico twinkled. Over the White House, the flag flew at half-mast. After the last speaker finished, before heading home, the protesters heeded the instructions of a pastor and hugged the person next to them.