Within hours of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a sizable crowd gathered quietly outside the White House. The mourners held candles to memorialize the victims—six adults and twenty children just 6 or 7 years old. They also clutched signs saying Mr. President: We are praying for your action. A spray-painted piece of plywood asked, Today: Sandy Hook, Tomorrow ?
A bit earlier, an emotional President Obama stood at the podium inside the James Brady briefing room—named for the former White House press secretary paralyzed by gun violence thirty years ago—and wiped away tears as he tried to bring the country to grips with the fact that many young children had been slaughtered by a disturbed young man we would later learn wielded a powerful assault rifle and two semiautomatic handguns. The president promised “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics,” a pledge he repeated two days later at a nationally televised memorial service during which he noted it was the fourth time he had stood before the country in the wake of a mass shooting.
Meanwhile, polls taken after the tragedy showed the highest levels of support for stronger gun control in a decade, exceeding even the levels measured after a mass shooting in 2011 that left six people dead and Representative Gabrielle Giffords critically injured. A gun control petition at the White House “We the People” website quickly broke the record for most signatures. Within three days, Senate Democrats announced plans for bills banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and not a single pro-gun senator agreed to appear on NBC’s Meet the Press. Eleven members of Congress who had previously opposed gun control announced a change of heart, including Senator Joe Manchin, who once fired a bullet through Obama’s climate change bill in a 2010 campaign ad. Right wingers who blamed their typical boogeymen, such as a lack of prayer in schools, were ridiculed or ignored, as were those who, incredibly, suggested that the solution to school shootings would be to arm teachers with concealed weapons.
In short, if the prelude to serious gun control legislation were scripted, it would look exactly like this. But what change is really possible, especially in hyper-gridlocked Washington?
Pessimists could make a strong case. The NRA kept gun control legislation from passing in Congress after the Columbine shootings. The Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest school shooting in history, provoked only modest legislation requiring more money for background checks—and even that carried an NRA-backed provision allowing states to reissue guns to the mentally ill. Although the NRA’s clout has paradoxically been muted by Citizens United, which has helped crowd out some of the NRA’s cash, it still holds powerful sway over many in Congress, particularly in the Republican Party, which will control the House for at least two more years.
But gun control advocates should not be intimidated: the political winds at their back are strong. It’s clear that Obama would sign gun control legislation passed by Congress, and the focus should be there. Advocates must pressure members to pass legislation swiftly reinstating the assault weapons ban and outlawing high-capacity magazines. The language of those bills must be strong, unlike the 1994 ban, which left many loopholes for manufacturers to exploit by slightly modifying and renaming their guns. Senate attempts to close the loopholes were rendered moot by the expiration of the ban in 2004.
But that’s only a start. Assault rifles contribute to only a fraction of America’s gun violence. Handguns, particularly in urban areas, claim thousands of lives every year, and let’s be frank: there’s no political will to ban or confiscate those weapons. We also have a conservative Supreme Court that has blocked such efforts in recent years.
All of which means that gun control advocates should broaden the fight. They can target the profiteers of gun violence, for example, an approach that’s already shown some promise post–Sandy Hook. After a California teachers pension fund threatened to review its investment in private equity firm Cerberus Capital because it owned Freedom Group, the large gun maker that manufactures the .223 Bushmaster rifle used at Newtown, the firm’s managers almost immediately agreed to sell it off. Other gun manufacturers and the banks and funds that profit from them are also fertile territory for public and investor pressure. Retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods have agreed to suspend assault weapons sales, though Walmart, as George Zornick details in this issue , is standing firm.
There’s also bullet control: highly regulating the sale of ammunition and restricting it to licensed gun owners only, while making resale strictly illegal and putting a unique, traceable micro-stamp in each bullet. The guns owned in America might always be with us, but they need a steady supply of bullets to be dangerous. And constitutional scholars have proposed enacting gun control through the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments instead of the Second Amendment, on the theory that the later amendments allow for a more democratic consideration of the way guns are affecting the country. Whatever the solutions, the problem is clear—and that should be more than enough reason for change.
Also in this issue, Katherine S. Newman searches for answers to America’s epidemic of violence, in “Roots of a Rampage .”