US gun control: Sandy Hook was meant to have changed America. Then politics got in the way

Fearful of electoral defeat, members of President's own party help shoot down gun control bill

Back in December, standing in the rain by the towering Christmas Tree in the centre of Sandy Hook, it seemed that finally the time had come: the gruesome killing of twenty children and six adults at the elementary school up the road would, surely, jolt the sclerotic lawmakers in Washington into tackling America's gun problem.

How could it not? Shortly after the President consoled the traumatised at a Newtown prayer vigil following the killings, a priest from a nearby church was walking around Sandy Hook distributing folded prayer cards. Inside were listed the names and birthdays of the dead. Knowing they were young did nothing to lessen the sadness of seeing the dates: February 2006, September 2005, June 2006, November 2005...

They hadn't been born when Wayne Lo opened fire on the campus of Bard College at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts. Lo used a semi-automatic rifle to kill a fellow student and a professor during a shooting spree on December 14, 1992 - exactly twenty years before Adam Lanza, armed with an AR 15-type assault rifle and two handguns, released 154 rounds of ammunition in less than five minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary.

And the Sandy Hook kids were still years away from being born when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Three of the four guns used in that shooting had been bought for Harris and Klebold by a  friend at a gun show. Owing to a well-known loophole in the gun laws, the friend, Robyn Anderson, was thus able to avoid the background checks required of buyers at registered gun shops.

Anderson, subsequently testified before the Colorado legislature. This is what she said: “I wish a law requiring background checks had been in effect at the time... It was too easy. I wish it had been more difficult.”

And yet, nothing meaningful happened. But something seemed to have shifted after Sandy Hook, with surveys over the subsequent months showing that the vast majority of Americans wanted their elected representatives to get tough.

In particular, there was little doubt about the desire to close the gun-show loophole and impose universal background checks, including in the case of guns bought online.

That lawmakers in Colorado did finally move on the issue after Sandy Hook, with Governor John Hickenlooper and the Democrats in the legislature approving measures for universal background checks, added to the hopes that progress might finally be possible at the national level. The Governor also signed legislation limiting the number rounds in ammunition magazines.

More recently, nine out of ten Americans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll on the issue backed universal background checks. There was no party-political divide. Nor was this a case of gun-haters going after gun owners, the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) would have it. The poll showed that more extensive background checks were supported by more than 90 per cent of gun-owning households. NRA members also backed better background checks. Their organization had once supported a limited and conditional extension of checks in the past - but not anymore. The membership seemed to be going in a different direction.

Right from the beginning of the year, the White House knew that the polls were moving because Sandy Hook. The President and the Vice President made repeated references to and appearances with families that had lost loved ones in the massacre.

But then the gun lobby got going. Not just the NRA but a less well known outfit called Gun Owners Of America (endorsed, according to its website, by the Republican Senator Rand Paul as the “only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington”). It's much smaller than the NRA but no less driven to defeat any measure that, in its view, curbs the “rights of gun owners.”

As a political compromise finally began to take shape on Capitol Hill, with Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, one of his Republican colleagues from Pennsylvania, spearheading the push, the lobby group began a misinformation campaign. The measures heading to the Senate included a ban on certain military-style assault rifles (which was never expected to get very far) and one to limit the size of ammunition magazines (again, despite the hopes of pro-reform groups, this was always going to be a tough sell). The real focus was on background checks: everyone believed that if the Senate could somehow get its act together and push through tougher checks, the pro-reform movement would be significantly strengthened.

But Gun Owners of America said the background checks would create a national gun registry. This, it warned, could pave the way for confiscation, “as every background check identifies the purchaser as a gun owner and creates the framework for a registration system,” according to an article published in the group's February newsletter said. Never mind that, as the President said, the law explicitly “outlawed any registry.”

The NRA did its bit, phone-banking its membership to bolster its war-chest and then embarking on a media campaign against the proposals.

The result: the Senate ran scared. And not just Republicans. Although most of the votes against the proposals were cast by members of the Grand Old Party, ensuring that measures would not cross the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the chamber, they had the support of a handful of Democrats. The key background check measure, for example, garnered 54 votes in support. That was after Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and the newly elected Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted against it (the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, also changed his vote to “no” at the end - but that was for procedural reasons). Their opposition effectively made the maths impossible for the White House. It had taken the administration and Mr Manchin months to win the backing of Republicans like Mr Toomey. The dissenting Democrats erased those gains in an instant.

The reason? The 2014 mid-term elections, when Baucus, Pryor and Begich face re-election. The President didn't fare well in their states last year, and they feared a conservative backlash.

While the anger in Mr Obama's speech was palpable when he responded to the Senate failure on Wednesday, what he was really doing was setting the stage for the polls, with gun control likely to be a major talking point. “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters,” he said. “To all the people who supported this legislation... you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed, and that if they don't act this time, you will remember come election time.”

Will the Democrats be able revive the cause? Perhaps, given the second-term President's stated resolve. History, however, suggests that little will come of it.

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