Can Sandy Hook Really Change the Politics of Guns?

There's more passion behind the prospect of new gun-control legislation than advocates have seen in a decade -- but rounding up the votes will be hard.

Getty Images

It happens after every mass shooting: Americans get momentarily passionate about gun control; the National Rifle Association lies low and waits for the storm to pass; and within a few months, the people and politicians have moved on to something else.

Will this time be any different?

Gun-control advocates believe it will. The massacre Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, has prompted an outpouring not just of grief but of rage, and it's been disproportionately directed at gun policy with an intensity and focus not seen in the wake of past tragedies.

There's a sense that a tipping point has been reached in public opinion, but gun-control advocates still don't have the votes in Congress.

But the question for advocates, as yet unanswered, is whether that passion is broad and lasting enough to turn into legislation. Thus far, the only lawmakers prompted to speak out for the first time on the issue have been pro-gun Democrats. And while the new willingness of Senators Joe Manchin and Mark Warner to challenge their erstwhile allies in the gun lobby is notable, it's Republican members of Congress that will have to move to get gun-control legislation passed. If you're hearing a mix of optimism and anxiety out of gun-control proponents, this is why: There's a sense that a tipping point has been reached in public opinion, but they still don't have the votes in Congress.

"I think we have a better chance than ever, I truly do. I feel it in my bones," Rep. Carolyn McCarthy told me. A New York Democrat, McCarthy lobbied to pass the original assault weapons ban in 1994 and was elected to Congress in 1996 as a gun-control advocate after her husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993. "I'm not someone who's extremely optimistic about these kinds of things, but there is a difference this time around. I see a lot more anger," she added.

McCarthy's priorities include renewing the assault weapons ban, which she plans to introduce in the House early next year; the new version of the legislation, which Dianne Feinstein of California is introducing in the Senate, will include a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, McCarthy said. Another focus is closing the "gun-show loophole" that allows people to buy guns at trade fairs and from private dealers without a background check. Obama supports both these measures, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday.

These types of policy changes enjoy widespread public support: Nearly 90 percent of Americans favor requiring background checks for all gun buyers, including 81 percent who live in gun-owning households, according to Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who has studied the issue extensively. A 2011 New York Times poll found 63 percent favored banning assault weapons.

The political clout of the NRA, long a Washington truism, is also being newly questioned. The powerful lobby has long inspired fear for its ability to pour money into campaigns against lawmakers who vote against its priorities -- $24 million since 2011, mostly devoted to opposing Democrats running for Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation. But that spending was notably ineffective in 2012. The NRA spent $9 million trying to defeat President Obama and elect Mitt Romney, to little effect; the overwhelming majority of candidates it supported lost, and candidates it opposed won. In fact, among independent-expenditure groups that spent money on the 2012 election, the NRA had the lowest return-on-investment of any group. Less than half of 1 percent of its spending resulted in the desired outcome.

Among independent-expenditure groups that spent money on the 2012 election, the NRA had the lowest return-on-investment of any group.

The result, McCarthy told me, is a lot of members of Congress who feel neither beholden to nor intimidated by the gun lobby. Democratic lawmakers like Arizona Rep. Ron Barber, who succeeded Gabby Giffords, and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, whose district includes Aurora, won their races despite NRA opposition and have told McCarthy they're committed to helping her with gun legislation, she said.

Now, gun-control advocates have their sights set on moderate Republican lawmakers from suburban districts. None have spoken up so far. "Up to now, it's been easy for them to ignore" the issue, Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who's worked on gun issues, told me. "But I think now they will be hearing from their constituents. It's not the kind of issue, frankly, where a lot of members will be rushing into the void. But it is an issue where they can be pulled across the line."

The idea that gun legislation is a political nonstarter is commonplace now, having gained currency in the wake of the 2000 election, when many Democrats blamed it for Al Gore's loss. The push to close the gun-show loophole in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings petered out, and the assault-weapon ban was allowed to expire in 2004. During Obama's presidency, former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel counseled the president to avoid the hot-button topic.

But gun-control legislation isn't impossible, Schiff said. "There have been times in the past where we have been able to pass legislation," he said. "We went through a long period where the politics of it became too problematic, but now I think we're back in a place where Congress and the president are ready to take action. I've been in Congress for a dozen years, and I've never seen the momentum move so quickly in support of responsible gun control."

In fact, in a little-remembered episode, the Senate actually voted to close the gun-show loophole in 2004. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, then on the Democratic presidential ticket, came off the campaign trail to vote for the proposal, contained in an amendment introduced by Republican John McCain. When the amendment passed, 53 to 46, it surprised the NRA, and the author of the bill to which it was attached, then-Senator Larry Craig, had to withdraw his own legislation to keep it from passing.

"That was when the NRA was at the peak of their power," said Matt Bennett of the center-left think tank Third Way, a former director of public affairs for the now-defunct Americans for Gun Safety. "They do lose occasionally."

Even compared to past horrors -- Tucson, Aurora, the Milwaukee Sikh temple -- Bennett has seen a sea change in the way the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary is being discussed. "This is a seminal moment. It's completely new. Anyone who tells you the old truths of gun politics hold here may be wrong," he said.

Bennett and others are particularly encouraged by the resolution Obama professed in his speech at Sunday's vigil in Newtown, though the president has yet to speak about specific policy remedies. The hardest task for advocates is keeping the gun-control issue on the radar once weeks or months have elapsed after a tragedy and passions have cooled; Obama, they hope, will keep the pressure on. "It was clear, listening to the president, he is not screwing around. That was a man determined to do something," Bennett said.

But there's still a long way to go to get the votes together for a concrete piece of legislation, he acknowledged. "There's no way anyone could argue it's a slam-dunk winner to get a gun-control bill done."