Brennan Linsley / AP

Guns in schools: Gun control debate, stalled in DC, picks up in the states

Even as gun control slips from federal agenda, advocates say they have scored victories and support at the state level

On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the first in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The next six parts examined how defense measures could traumatize kidshow threat assessments are being used to prevent school violencewhy Georgia has seen the most school shootings since Sandy Hookwhy Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capitaNewtown's grass-roots gun reform efforts, and where most gun violence against kids takes place.

WASHINGTON — If there was a single sign that the federal push for legislation to tighten gun restrictions has entered the do-not-resuscitate phase of its political life, it may have been President Barack Obama’s conspicuous omission of the topic in his State of the Union address last week.

Even in an address replete with agenda items that most acknowledge have no chance of getting past the Republican-controlled Congress, guns warranted only a vague reference to the president’s grieving with the families of Newtown.

Close watchers of the gun debate in the United States said that gun control’s moment — at least in Washington — has passed.

“President Obama spent all of his chips or made his strongest effort in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and with the failure of that effort when Congress failed to act — the Senate specifically — there was a sense that he had made his best effort and it wasn’t going to get anywhere,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland specializing in the politics of gun control. “He’s made a political calculation that it makes more sense to spend his resources on other issues.”

Spitzer said he does not expect guns to be foremost in Americans’ minds or at the top of the public policy agenda in the foreseeable future.

“I think 2015 is likely to be a lull year … compared to last year,” he said. “Much of the energy has been spent for the short term, and then we’ll see a gearing up by the gun groups for 2016, the next presidential and congressional races.”

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of gun deaths and mass shootings has continued.

A December report by two gun control advocacy groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, counted 99 school shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre, including shootings at college campuses. In 23 of those incidents there was at least one fatality. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that compiles data on gun violence, there were 12,569 gun deaths in the United States in 2014.

Follow Al Jazeera’s extensive content on gun violence

Despite the bleak statistics, advocates for stricter gun regulations see reason for optimism. With Congress paralyzed on the issue, a flurry of activity has taken place at the state level.

States have enacted 242 new firearm laws since Newtown: 99 that strengthened gun laws, 88 that weakened them and 55 that had minimal impact, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national advocacy group for gun regulations that compiles data on state and federal legislation.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she counts significant victories in the last two years that indicates that the grip of the gun lobby, particularly the powerful National Rifle Association, on state and national politics is slowly but surely waning.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed a National Rifle Association-backed bill that would have reversed a blanket restriction that prevents the subjects of any personal protection order from obtaining a concealed pistol license. In Washington state, voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative in November that closed the background-check loophole for gun shows and Internet sales. And in September 2014, California became the first state in the country where family members can ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a danger.

“We’ve been able to kill bad bills, and we’re supporting good,” Watts said. “This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. It’s going to take months and years to undo the damage the NRA has done, both in our state legislatures and on a federal level.”

The NRA did not return requests for comment.

Sarah Trumble, a policy counsel for social policy and politics at Third Way, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said that for the first time, equally powerful and well-financed groups have arisen to counter the clout of the NRA.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to give at least $50 million to Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the major groups promoting stricter gun laws. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC started by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was critically injured in an Arizona shooting in 2010, raised $21 million in the 2014 cycle, spending $7 million in federal elections in support of candidates in favor of stricter gun laws, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Still, the NRA remains an intimidating foe for gun control advocates. The group spent $27 million supporting and opposing federal candidates in the 2014 election cycle and $3 million on lobbying.

“This is a really interesting time in the movement. What we’re seeing is that the NRA is not the only loud and well-funded voice in the debate. We’re seeing the remnants of their power,” Trumble said. “The balance of power is not all with the NRA.”

Gun safety advocates said they are encouraged by the recent appointment of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, whose confirmation was vehemently opposed by the NRA for his outspoken views about gun safety as a public health issue and was held up for more than a year by conservative senators. Although experts say he cannot substantially change gun regulations, his confirmation as surgeon general is a sign of changing attitudes in government and the populace on gun violence.

“It’s important on a sort of significance level,” Trumble said. “It means a lot that the highest doctor in the land is concerned about it and recognizes it as a public health issue.”

Timeline: School shootings since Sandy Hook

Related News

Gun Laws, NRA, Politics
Barack Obama

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Gun Laws, NRA, Politics
Barack Obama

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter