As a year closes in which there has been an average of more than one mass shooting per day in the United States, it is highly disturbing to think back to three years ago, when 26 people, most of them little children, were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, and to think of how little as changed. After some tepid optimism, as seen in The Nation’s editorial in response to that tragedy, that new gun-control laws might finally be passed to deal with the epidemic of shootings across the country, the National Rifle Association and its allies in both parties were able to emerge victorious once again. It is difficult to imagine how gun-control legislation might pass in a Congress now controlled entirely by Republicans. If not then, when?

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.…

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.…

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.

December 14, 2012

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.