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.