The Year in Guns: In wake of tragedy, more government inaction

Sandy Hook’s horror ignited calls for gun control legislation, but the gun lobby fought them back, with some success

A police photo of firearms and ammunition found on or near the shooter’s body at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Connecticut State Police via Getty Images

In the United States, the pendulum swings wide bearing the weight of a gun.

Just one year ago, the nation found itself grappling with fresh grief after a mass shooting in which a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn. It was another stroke in the drumbeat of tragedy ingraining a national vernacular centered on dateline — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora. All were places where the semiautomatic weapon’s innate purpose to briskly slaughter was validated through deed. By last December, however, as the names of the smallest and most innocent registered, gun reform seemed possible, inevitable, welcomed.

President Barack Obama quickly called for legislation limiting high-capacity ammunition clips, reinstating a ban on assault weapons and expanding universal background checks.

But that was then. A lot can change in 12 months.

Gun-rights groups drew hard lines against the groundswell of public sentiment advocating gun control, diminishing the prospect of consensus. Paranoia about a governmental gun grab spurred stockpiling, and fear sparked a run on guns in the name of personal protection. The logic-twisting belief in security from a weaponized citizenry quickly snowballed into the ludicrous, leaving moderation far behind. Calls emerged to arm teachers in classrooms and send children to school lugging bulletproof backpacks, while legislatures passed laws allowing concealed guns on playgrounds and in bars.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, gun-rights groups went tactical, spending nearly $9 million on lobbying from January through September as lawmakers debated gun reform. By April, Republican lawmakers and Democrats from pro-gun districts had grown fearful of finding themselves on the wrong side of guns and blocked reform, handing the gun lobby — lorded over by the NRA — a quick return on its investment. NRA-backed targeting proved effective when two Colorado legislators found themselves recalled by voters after supporting gun reform in their state. It took less than a week for the vote to take on the pallor of disconnect, with a gunman storming Navy Yard offices in Washington, D.C., killing a dozen people with a legally obtained shotgun.

Little has been done to close loopholes that might have prevented that gun purchase or lay down rules for the possible next frontier of weapons. Technology promises a game changer for law enforcement, as lawmakers grapple with the advent of 3-D printers capable of creating undetectable plastic weapons. While Congress has renewed the ban on plastic guns — the only gun-control legislation it moved this year — it fell short of requiring that guns have unremovable pieces of metal to make them more easily detectable.

With such large-scale federal gun-control inaction in 2013, scrutiny will continue to shift to the state level in the year ahead. The big story there, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan governmental watchdog, is that momentum behind state proposals to pre-emptively nullify potential federal laws banning assault weapons and deeper background checks is losing steam. The once perceived federal threat is, for now, not seen as great. However, 2014 could reset that perception, as gun-reform advocates vow to ramp up spending to compete with gun-rights activists. Senate Democratic leadership has promised to bring the issue of background checks to a vote in 2014 before the midterm elections. States like Iowa, where gun permits have been issued to the legally blind, will likely find their laws put under a stronger microscope in 2014.

The piecemeal, state-focused approach to gun control, however, is creating fertile ground for grassroots activism and, consequently, shining spotlights on the extremism of the fringe. Members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national organization launched after the Newtown tragedy that lobbies for reform at the state level, for example, have been on the receiving end of online bullying campaigns by gun groups advocating physical and sexual violence. The intimidation factor is easily spiked in states such as Texas, where gun-rights activists flout gun laws by openly carrying long guns such as rifles and shotguns. It’s an antagonistic display that leaves even the gun community divided.

The passionate debate over constitutional rights amid a call for protecting public safety has made it clear that lines remain indelibly drawn. The discussion will inevitably zero in on the correlation between gun ownership and acts of violence, as more evidence emerges establishing a link between gun ownership and firearm violence.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on. In November a gunman spraying bullets from an assault rifle shot his way into a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, killing a TSA agent. Earlier this month, another disaffected student walked into his high school with a legally purchased firearm, shooting a student with a 12-gauge shotgun before killing himself. The victim died Saturday of her injuries. The 80-second attack bookended a year when everything — and yet nothing — changed. 

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