Why This Time Was Different for Guns

It was Washington conventional wisdom that Obama would do nothing on guns once the outrage over the Newtown shooting quieted. But he signed 23 executive actions meant to reduce gun violence, and began a major push in Congress. What changed?

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It was Washington conventional wisdom that President Obama would do nothing on guns once the outrage over the Newtown shooting quieted. But one month and two days after the mass murder of first graders and their teachers, Obama signed 23 executive actions* meant to reduce gun violence, and began a major push in Congress to ban assault rifles, to ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, and to require universal background checks on gun purchases. What changed?

The day after the Sandy Hook shootings, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the headline, "Despite Obama's appeal for action, new gun control unlikely, experts say." Pundits, too, largely assumed that Obama had no stomach for a bruising fight with the National Rifle Association and its supporters on Capitol Hill. The conventional view was that America's debate on guns had already been held and the NRA had won. Writing for The New Yorker December 16, Patrick Radden Keefe pointed out Obama hadn't even used the word "gun" in his remarks following the Sandy Hook shooting. On December 17, GQ's Oliver Franklin wrote that since Obama has to fight the GOP on so many other things, like the debt ceiling, that, "bar perhaps a few rhetorical flourishes, any chance of progress on gun control has already perished." The same day, David Frum argued on CNN.com that it would be wise for Obama to do nothing, because he "will inevitably polarize" the debate.

Even after Obama tasked Vice President Joe Biden on December 19 to lead a committee that would draw up proposals on curbing violence, few expected much to come of it. On December 30, David Gregory asked Obama on Meet the Press what his top priorities were. After Obama listed immigration, the economy, energy, and taxes. Gregory responded, "Those are four huge things and you didn't mention... new gun regulations... Do you have the stomach for the political fight for new gun control laws?" Obama said, "You know, David, I think anybody who was up in Newtown, who talked to the parents, who talked to the families, understands that, you know, something fundamental in America has to change." But Gregory still was skeptical:

GREGORY: But can you get it done? I mean the politics...


GREGORY: ...is the question.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...so the question is are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress. I'd like to get it done in the first year. I will put forward a very specific proposal based on the recommendations that Joe Biden's task force is putting together as we speak. And so this is not something that I will be putting off.

Today, Obama showed he meant what he said. Here's what was different following the Newtown attack.

Obama doesn't have to run for a second term.

After Attorney General Eric Holder said Obama would push to reinstate the assault weapons ban in early 2009, then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel demanded he "shut the [bleep] up." After hearing Holder's comment, former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman reportedly called Valerie Jarrett's office and asked her aide, "You guys have already given up on having a second term?"

Democrats have already lost the votes of the most intense gun enthusiasts.

Some Democrats think gun control cost Al Gore the 2000 election, because he lost states like West Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee. But as The New Republic's Nate Cohn explains, abandoning gun control didn't win those voters back. (John Kerry repeatedly paraded around in Ohio in hunting garb, and still lost the state.) Cohn writes:

The success of Democrats in well-educated suburbs has placed Republicans in a situation not too dissimilar from the one facing Democrats at the beginning of the last decade. To win nationally, Republicans will need to reclaim the socially moderate suburbs around Denver, Washington, and Philadelphia where gun control is at least a neutral issue, if not a real asset to Democrats.

The public reacted strongly to the Newtown massacre.

Mass shootings usually have had a moderate impact on public opinion, as this chart from the Huffington Post's Mark Blumenthal demonstrates:

But recent polls have shown an increase in support for new gun laws. A Gallup poll this week showed a 13-point spike in dissatisfaction with gun laws:

An ABC News/ Washington Post poll released this week showed broad public support for gun control measures -- 68 percent said addressing gun violence should be either a high priority or the highest priority. A Pew Research Center found a majority supports almost every gun violence measure under discussion except arming school teachers.

The expectations were quickly lowered.

The reality is that it will be very difficult to pass gun legislation through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. "It is natural to think that the emotional magnitude of the massacre must therefore have some proportion to its magnitude as a political event," New York's Jonathan Chait wrote in December. "But this is just as untrue as the comforting fallacy that every great tragedy must do some good. Some things have changed since Friday, but most have not." The White House initially floated some executive actions, then proposed 19, and then, on Wednesday, Obama signed 23 of them. Some of them -- like allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to do research on gun violence -- won't stop gun deaths immediately. They're more about playing the long game. More research on gun violence, which the NRA successfully lobbied to half in the mid-1990s, is how gun control advocates can strengthen their case in the future.

 *Correction: This story originally misidentified the executive actions by President Obama as "executive orders."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.