America’s New Gunfight: Inside the Campaign to Avert Mass Shootings

Will a new campaign for gun laws quell the mass shootings that are routine in America?

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Correction Appended Jan. 19, 2013

The next great American gun fight began this month with handshakes and smiles in a reunion of old foes at the Vice President’s ceremonial office. Joe Biden knew the drill. Two decades ago, he led the last major gun-control effort in the Senate, enacting a 10-year ban on sales of certain semiautomatics and imposing background checks for gun purchasers using licensed dealers. It was a defining experience. “Guns! Guns! Guns!” he called out from the Senate floor in August 1994. “The single most contentious issue in the 22 years I have been here that relates to the criminal-justice system.”

Now it was starting again, in another gilded room and with many of the same players still sitting on opposite sides of the table, including James Jay Baker, a top advocate for the National Rifle Association. The Vice President’s views on guns hadn’t changed much over the years: “The NRA gained power, and he gained disdain for them,” explains one former aide. But Biden arrived, as always, looking to win the room.

(MORE: Your Brain in Shootout: Guns, Fear, and Flawed Instincts)

So he began with charm, praising Baker for his fairness regarding some issue they both worked on in Delaware. He made a crack to the other gun-owner advocates—“gunners,” he used to call them—about the difficulty of getting Hollywood and the video-game industry to talk about their addiction to violence. Then he laid out the contours of the fight to come, deflecting the harshest policy disagreements to his boss’s judgment. “I am the Vice President, not the President,” he said.

Vice President Joe Biden

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘I have no illusions about what we’re up against … but i also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken.’ —Joe Biden

Biden wanted to send a message, one he had been honing since December in meetings with cops, gun-control groups, clergy, mayors, educators and medical professionals. Ever since President Obama decided to pursue new gun controls after the massacre of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, Biden and his staff knew they faced an uphill battle in Congress. Democrats from rural districts remain wary of gun restrictions, and the Republican House is so dysfunctional that it can’t even pass its own bills, let alone one written by the White House. Even Obama treated guns as swing-state kryptonite during his re-election campaign, hardly mentioning the issue on the trail.

So the public fact-finding mission that Biden undertook in late December was given a second, more vital purpose: to lay the groundwork for a new grassroots movement, a lasting national campaign that would bring together various interest groups to win new limits on firearms—new penalties for gun trafficking, new prosecutions of gun crimes, limits on the types of guns available for sale, requirements for background checks for private and gun-show purchases, regulations for ammunition and limits on the size of gun magazines.

Biden and Obama laid their proposal before the public Jan. 16, with more than a hint of other battles to come. The President immediately signed 23 Executive Orders to prevent future gun violence and proposed new legislation that would, if enacted, amount to the biggest change in gun laws since 1968. “This is our first task as a society—keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged.”

The White House does not expect to win many judgments soon. Instead it wants to change the entire conversation about gun politics in America. Republicans in both chambers, resistant to betraying a key constituency, will have to feel the sting of sustained public outrage for the effort to succeed. And Democrats will have to risk short-term ballot-box backlash and take votes they too have resisted for at least 20 years. No one expects either campaign to be easy. “It falls into the larger context of the Republicans’ fighting rearguard battles on immigration and the role of government and on this,” said one Administration official about the coming gun fight. “That’s going to be hard to sustain over time.”

(MORE: Cover Story: The Gunfighters)

But even some Republicans admit that the Newtown, Conn., massacre may have changed the fundamental chemistry of gun politics in the U.S. Before the end of the year, polls were shifting slightly, showing majorities in the country in favor of new regulations on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and universal background checks. A Time/CNN poll found in mid-January that 55% of the country supported stricter gun control, while 44% opposed it. As Biden put it before his meeting with the gun-owner groups, “There is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little 6-year-old kids riddled—not shot by a stray bullet but riddled, riddled—with bullet holes in their classroom.” In his meetings with the gun lobbyists, Biden asked his guests to consider the shifting terrain after Sandy Hook. Even evangelical leaders, he said, traditionally a source of Republican influence, were expressing concern about guns. “It’s going the other way,” he told the men across the table. It was a warning and, in its way, a threat.

Kiss My Constitution

For Baker and the rest of the NRA brass, the Biden effort had the feel of a dark prophecy finally fulfilled. For a year, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre had been warning Americans of “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment.” He said gun owners needed to ready themselves for an assault on their rights if Obama was re-elected. And the uptick in gun and ammunition purchases across the country after the election suggested that many gun owners agreed. At rallies LaPierre would warn that Americans had been lulled to sleep in the first term. “That lying, conniving Obama crowd can kiss our Constitution!” he would call out to applause. Now it was happening.

“They see this as their best shot, and it is a shot that they are taking, and they are coming right at us,” David Keene, the NRA’s president, said a few days later in an interview with Time. The group, which says it has more than 4 million members and spent about $20 million in the 2012 election cycle, was getting ready—reviewing the polls, keeping in touch with its members and calibrating message strategy. “We’re doing all the things you would do if you were expecting a really serious battle,” he said.

(FROM THE ARCHIVES: TIME’s Gun Covers, 1968-2013)

Keene welcomed some of the ideas Biden was preparing, like increased federal funding for school security and more aggressive prosecution for felons who illegally attempt to buy weapons. Keene was even willing to entertain an expansion of the background-check system for gun shows, where roughly 40% of gun sales take place. “I’m interested to see how such a proposal would be workable,” he said. But he expressed concern about the entire approach of the Administration and about anything that sought to limit the types of firearms and magazines available for law-abiding citizens. “We are saying the question that Americans are asking is ‘How do we protect our kids?’ The question is not ‘How do we ban guns we don’t like?’”

Most worrisome for the NRA was the clear sense that something else had changed since the 1990s, something Biden didn’t harp on in the meeting but was counting on nonetheless: leverage. “They, for the first time, have money and coordination that they did not have before,” Keene said. Millionaires and billionaires were stepping forward. Gun-victim groups were organizing. Social-networking campaigns were being prepared. Celebrities had been recruited to carry the message. This new fight over guns would be fought over old fault lines but on new terrain, with new tools, many of which were just proved very effective in the heat of a nationwide campaign. Biden, this time, had backup. “The public wants us to act,” he said.

“This Is Different”

On the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabby Giffords, was traveling in China. He awoke in a Beijing hotel at 3 a.m., saw the news on television and called his wife, who was in Arizona, continuing her recovery from the gunshot wound to her brain—the work of another madman with a high-capacity gun. She was shaken, changed. “She said, ‘We need to do something. We’ve got to stop just talking about this,’” Kelly remembers.

Gabrielle Giffords

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘We need to do something. We’ve got to stop just talking about this.’ —Gabby Giffords, former Representative, to her astronaut husband Mark Kelly

Until then, the couple had decided to avoid the activist path, treating the 2011 Tucson shooting largely as a personal trauma that needed to be dealt with in private. “It’s not what we wanted to do,” he said. But now they went all-in, drawing up plans for two new organizations: a nonprofit to build grassroots support for changes to gun laws and a super PAC to run ads supporting members of Congress on the issue. Kelly decided to start working full time on the effort and began calling those he thought could help.

(MORE: The Sandy Hook 26: Remembering Newtown’s Victims)

One of his first calls was to Steve Mostyn, a wealthy trial-lawyer friend from Houston who happens to be one of the biggest contributors to Democratic super PACs. Like Kelly and Giffords, Mostyn is a gun owner. He sleeps with a handgun by his bed, in a safe that opens by his fingerprint. He has a gun range on his West Texas ranch and invites friends out to shoot. But when Kelly called, Mostyn had just dropped off his 5-year-old daughter at school. “I told him it was time,” Mostyn says.

The subject of gun laws was on his mind even before Sandy Hook. A few months earlier, he bought a couple of pistols, both with high-capacity magazines, and 3,000 rounds of ammunition for his gun collection at a local gun store. “The kid who walks me out to the car says to me, ‘It looks like you are going to start a war,’” Mostyn says, noting his shock at how easy it was to stock up on enormous amounts of lethal firepower.

“I’m not anti-gun. I’m just not pro-dumbass,” he continues, citing the more than 30,000 Americans who die every year from guns, mostly from suicide. “We’ve got a gun problem. That’s what differentiates us from other cultures.” He told Kelly he would seed the new group, which they called Americans for Responsible Solutions, with $1 million and begin fundraising with a goal of more than $14 million to support members of Congress in the 2014 elections who cast tough gun votes. “If a representative wants to vote their conscience, we are not going to allow you to bully,” he said of the NRA. “We will counter.”

At the same time, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was working from the same playbook. With a net worth estimated at $25 billion, his contribution was potentially far greater than Mostyn’s. In 2012 he challenged Mitt Romney and Obama to lay out their plans for curbing gun violence. Neither took Bloomberg up on the offer, but he went ahead and seeded a super PAC of his own, Independence USA, to flex his muscle on the gun issue. The group spent about $10 million on five races around the country and won four, including the primary defeat of a veteran pro-NRA Democratic Representative in California, Joe Baca. Another group funded by Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, began an advertising campaign called Demand a Plan, with spots running in communities that had been affected by gun violence.

(TIME/CNN Poll: Obama’s Gun Plan Could Face Mixed Reception)

“The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful,” Bloomberg tells Time. He says he wants to force votes on Capitol Hill so he can take the issue to the 2014 congressional elections. “I want the Congress to have to stand up and say, ‘I’m with the NRA and support killing our children’ or ‘No.’ And if the answer is, ‘I’m going to take on that fight,’ I’ve got their back,’” he says. He will not say how much more money he will spend, other than that it will be a substantial sum. “He described the $10 million as putting his toe in the water,” says Howard Wolfson, one of Bloomberg’s political advisers. “I don’t know what the full foot is worth.”

Other groups are also organizing. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence raised $5 million since late December and announced a new ad campaign built around the slogan “We are better than this.” A coalition of liberal gun-violence groups targeted North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp with ads last month after the Democrat criticized the President’s proposals, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored the 1994 ban on certain semiautomatic guns, is planning her own media push for the end of January. “This is different,” she says. “I did not get calls about ‘How do we organize?’ I get those now.”

But the opposition to gun control has grown stronger as well. Compared with the early 1990s, the NRA has strengthened its hand in the halls of Congress, and since Sandy Hook it has added 250,000 new members. More Americans agree with the positions of the NRA than disagree, in the new TIME/CNN poll, and of the half of people with guns in their homes, a majority feel that the government is trying to take their firearms away, even though Obama has not proposed any such measure. “Stand and fight,” runs the tagline of a new television ad the NRA released in advance of the Biden task-force announcement. The spot calls Obama an “elite hypocrite” and attacks him for supporting armed guards for his daughters but not at other schools, a deceptive charge given the President’s decision to increase federal funding for school security. (In response, the White House denounced the ad as “repugnant and cowardly” for mentioning the President’s children.) Keene suggests more tough talk is on the way and says he is actively seeking wealthy donors to counter the new money on the left.

The landscape in Congress, meanwhile, tilts against new regulation. The assault-weapons ban passed the Senate in 1993 with 56 votes. The thought of filibustering that proposal was seen at the time as out of bounds. That is probably no longer the case. In the Senate, Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, who has long supported gun owners, has discouraged the idea of trying to renew the assault-weapons ban. The key question for the coming months is whether all the outside efforts can change the underlying physics of gun politics. Grover Norquist, a Republican organizer and an NRA board member, says the left often mistakes voter preference for voter intensity on the gun issue. While polls might show that a majority of Americans support a given gun regulation, come election time, it is usually only the opponents who base their vote on that issue. “We’ve been through this before,” he notes, saying the power of the NRA has never been anchored in the number of television ads it buys in campaigns. “People who care about the Second Amendment know where people are on guns. It’s not a vote-moving issue on the left.” The TIME/CNN poll suggests that dynamic is still at work. Only 14% of Democrats said they would vote for candidates only if they shared their view on guns, compared with 22% of Republicans.

310 Million Guns

but the white house is not counting votes in Congress just yet. It is counting instead on fostering a change in attitudes that will force politicians to take notice. “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty,” Obama said when he announced his recommendations. “The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their memberships say this time must be different.”

Michael Bloomberg

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful.’ —Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City

To do that, the White House will have to sell the idea that its solutions will address the problem of mass shootings. But on that most important question, the verdict is vague. For decades, the frequency of mass shootings and the number of gun-related suicides in the U.S. have been consistent, while gun homicides have declined with the general crime rate. On average, there are 20 shootings a year with more than four victims killed, according to James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. On the same day that Biden met with the gun industry, a 16-year-old walked into his high school in Southern California and fired two rounds from a shotgun, allegedly trying to kill two students he believed were bullying him. He hit one of his targets and missed the second, killing no one, so the crime will not be counted in the statistics.

Eliminating all firearms in the U.S. would eliminate the ability to kill with firearms, but that is not anything like a realistic option. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment bestows on U.S. citizens a right to possess firearms for lawful purposes. That right, just like those guaranteed in the First Amendment, can be subject to restrictions, but guns will never be removed from civilian circulation. And the number of guns out there continues to grow. In 1968 there was one gun in civilian hands for every two Americans. As of 2009, there were more guns in the U.S. than people: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. Nothing proposed would take away those guns.

And most mass shooters don’t use assault weapons anyway. They prefer pistols, often with many bullets in the clip. The shooters, more often than not, lack criminal records, suggesting that background checks applied to all sales might not deter them. But Biden and Obama have set a low bar for the legislation they propose, speaking only about diminishing the probability of more attacks, not eliminating them altogether. “If there is even one life that can be saved,” Obama says, “then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

On that score, there is evidence to support the idea that more rules might prevent individual cases of mass violence or at least lessen the damage. The disturbed man who shot Giffords was tackled while reloading his gun, having spent 33 rounds. Nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green was shot sometime after bullet No. 12, says Kelly, who has reviewed the criminal records. “If Jared Loughner didn’t have access to a high-capacity magazine, there would be less people dead,” he says.

(MORE: Letters to Obama: Children Plead for Gun Control)

Improving the scope and quality of background checks, with better mental health and more recent criminal records, could help prevent criminal and disturbed individuals from acquiring weapons. Also, better coordination between schools, mental-health officials and the police could flag potential shooters. Both Loughner and James Holmes, the movie-theater shooter in Aurora, Colo., raised alarm bells at their respective schools before they struck. Obama has promised to pursue several education efforts about mental illness and guns as part of his Executive actions.

But the big questions on gun control will soon move out of Washington and be placed before the American people. “I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe,” said Obama. “But I’ve got to tell you that the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.” It will be a long fight. But it is a fight that has begun again.

The original version of this article misstated where Gabby Giffords was shot. It was in Tucson, not Phoenix.

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