Gun Control Activists Seek to Reboot After Newtown Shooting Momentum Fades

Learning lessons from the failed federal push

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

A woman places flowers at a memorial near a sign for Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 15, 2012.

Pacing the stage in a dark suit and no tie, the man who led the effort to legalize gay marriage in Washington laid out his next crusade to the nearly 200 grassroots activists gathered at the Seattle Center Pavilion Wednesday.

“We here in Washington have a history of leading the country from software and coffee to marriage equality and environmental stewardship,” Zach Silk told the crowd. “Acting together, we can stand up to the gun lobby and change the conversation in the country.” Silk, who heads the gun control group Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, then outlined a path to passing a ballot initiative next November that would expand background checks on gun purchases.

Making good on his words will be a tall order. Almost one year after 20 children and six adults were murdered in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the momentum it created to tighten America’s gun laws has led to few changes in policy. A federal effort to expand background checks on gun purchasers failed in Congress. Of the 109 state laws passed in the last year, only 39 tightened gun restrictions and 70 actually loosened them, according to a New York Times analysis. Just a handful of states–most solidly blue—enacted new gun control measures.

“We’ve probably seen more thrown at us this year then in the whole history of the debate,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights organization in Seattle. “In some of the blue states we lost some ground, but in the red states we gained more ground.”

Even hard-won victories led to setbacks for gun control advocates. Swing state Colorado narrowly passed tighter gun control legislation—only to see two state legislators recalled in a special election pushed by gun rights groups and another resign rather than face the same fate.

As if in tacit acknowledgment that gun control is all but dead this legislative session, the White House marked the Sandy Hook anniversary this week by pledging $100 million to bolster mental health services. The statement made no mention of legislation to expand background checks or curb assault weapons, which had been the focus a year ago. Public opinion, meanwhile, is shifting. Support for stricter gun control has faded from a high of 58% right after the Sandy Hook shooting to 49% in October, according to Gallup. That span includes several other mass shootings, including one in September at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard that claimed a dozen lives.

Despite the cooling public opinion and legislative setbacks, gun control advocates argue Newtown has reignited the movement and taught them important strategic lessons. “This has been the biggest year on passing new gun laws than any year in the past two decades, including after Columbine. A lot has happened,” says Arkadi Gerney, who works on gun control for the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington think tank. “There’s a growing, stronger movement. The progress that’s happening will eventually reach Washington.”

The collapse of federal background check legislation has led supporters to focus on local efforts. “I understand the pundits say that not enough got done this year, but next year is going to be even bigger,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which formed in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. The group has since launched in all 50 states, modeling itself after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Next year, the group is considering pushing a measure in a number of yet-to-be-determined southern and mountain states to charge parents or guardians of children who accidentally shoot themselves or others with criminal negligence for not locking up their firearms.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is working to establish himself as a counterweight to the powerful National Rifle Association, has said he plans on spending $12 million against anti-gun control candidates in the run up to next year’s election. And Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nonprofit founded by Bloomberg and other urban mayors, is currently looking at around 12 states in 2014 where they will push legislation or initiatives on background checks, domestic violence and guns, better reporting of mental health records and expanding the class of prohibited purchasers.

These efforts will be aided by a new ally. Organizing for Action, President Obama’s grassroots advocacy group, largely sat out the federal background check debate because they were unprepared to launch a new effort so soon after the 2012 election. Now, OFA is working in communities across the U.S. to drum up support for changes to local, state and federal laws.

The electoral efforts paid off in November when Democrat Mark Herring won Virginia’s tight attorney general race. Kevin O’Holleran, Herring’s campaign manager, credits OFA’s work and direct mail and TV advertising by political action committees affiliated with Bloomberg and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for pushing his candidate over the top in a state that is home to the N.R.A.

Still, activists know the quick path is gone and the road ahead is long and complicated. At least in Washington, though, Silk is convinced that gun control will be easier to achieve than gay marriage was. “When we were in those fights we were always at a very bare majority, there are a lot of conflicted voters out there on gay equality,” Silk says. “It is very well resolved what to do on gun control and that is only being blocked by a well financed minority.”

A recent statewide poll found that 81% of Washington residents favor expanded background checks. Despite such support, Democrats last year blocked a background check bill from even coming to a vote in the legislature for fear of political repercussions from the gun lobby. Silk’s challenge is the one faced by gun control advocates across the country: turn public support into political action, something the movement has largely failed to do.