Matt McClain/REUTERS
People attend a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence just prior to the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Thursday December 12.

A year after Newtown shootings, America is at crossroads on guns

One of the deadliest school shootings in US history unified the country in grief. But the aftermath in the year since Sandy Hook has pulled an already polarized land further apart on guns.

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, which left 20 small children and six educators dead, forced Americans to confront the twin scourges of mental illness and gun violence too frequently seen in the United States.

But while the second deadliest school shooting in US history unified the country in grief, the aftermath in the year since has in many ways pulled an already polarized land further apart, particularly on the issue of how guns fit into a modern society.

For one, many Americans who already believed guns are bad became motivated to work toward changing gun laws in Washington and in state capitals, often inspired by the political activism of Newtown survivors; those who thought guns are a force for good worked just as feverishly, armed with even more cash, to further enshrine the gun as a basic component of the American tool chest.

That divergence was noted by the Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery, who interviewed national lawmakers about their thoughts on gun rights and gun control this week.

“It turns out that most politicians' views haven’t changed at all,” she concludes. “If anything, Sandy Hook and its fallout only hardened pre-existing beliefs.”

That inability of a country founded by musket-toting pioneers to agree on ways to curb the kind of violence that struck at Sandy Hook is in part a function of federalism, where state governments, which are closer to the people than Congress, experiment with social policy.

But a year after Sandy Hook, the aftermath has also given way to a political and cultural divide that has come to look a lot like a crossroads, with both sides suggesting that now is the time to make a change.

“Beneath the sadness, we also felt a sense of resolve – that these tragedies must end, and that to end them, we must change,” President Obama said in his weekly Saturday address.

But if views only hardened since Sandy Hook, legislative activity picked up. Of more than 1,000 gun-related bills introduced in the states since Sandy Hook, thirty-nine laws were passed, the majority of them in California, that make it more difficult to obtain a gun or certain kinds of magazines, while 73 laws were passed that make it easier to obtain or wield a gun, mostly in already gun-friendly states, according to a New York Times review.

Examples include Connecticut banning certain kinds of assault-style weapons, while North Carolina approved a bill allowing legal gun owners to wear their arms to bars.

Despite the numerical gap between pro- and anti-gun control laws, however, some academics argue that pro-gun control legislation was, on the whole, more sweeping and robust, in part because “maternal arguments have been incredibly powerful in offsetting the more libertarian small state anti-statist arguments that are part of political couture,” says Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.

Not everyone has that same take-away, however.

“One might think that such unceasing bloodshed and the shock of Newtown would lead to not just national outcry but reform of America’s lax gun laws. And it has. Ironically, they’ve been further weakened,” Michael Cohen writes in the Guardian, a British newspaper.

Those lamenting what they see as national antipathy about the fact that 194 American children have died from gunshot wounds in the year since Newtown may however be misunderstanding the ambivalence about passing new gun control laws on a federal level, some gun law experts say.

“[T]alking about tinkering with the rules of how we lawfully acquire guns doesn't address the mass shootings situations, and I think it's also the case that it doesn't really have much to do with violent crime on the streets on a day-to-day basis,” Paul Barrett, author of “Glock: The rise of America’s gun,” told WBUR’s “Here and Now” program on Dec. 5.

Indeed, after a brief boost in support for stricter gun control, the country is now again evenly divided on tougher gun laws, according to a new CBS poll. Tightening background checks to make it tougher for mentally disturbed people to acquire guns is one rare potential point of compromise, since 85 percent of Americans agree that’s a sensible proposal.

Citing that statistic, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Senate floor on Friday that the background check debate isn’t finished, despite the failure in the Senate of such a change last April.

"It's going to happen; it's only a question of when it happens," Mr. Reid said.

Of course, the diverging trends around states and gun laws had already been established before Sandy Hook. While states like California have continued to make it harder to own guns, other states have been busy for a decade liberalizing gun laws. Liberal commentators often lay the blame square on the National Rifle Association, which does hold powerful sway in Congress, but in many states it’s been grassroots gun rights groups leading the charge, and holding legislators’ feet to the fire.

On that note, gun control groups spent some $1.6 million this year on their cause while gun rights groups, backed by the NRA, spent about $10 million.

But if America is at a crossroads on such a sad anniversary, it’s also clear that Sandy Hook did jar many Americans deeply, sometimes enough to change their minds about what effects guns have on society, and more importantly its children.

The problem for many Americans may not be tweaking gun safety regulations, but whether any change at all will give ammunition to political forces to whittle away at basic Second Amendment protections for gun owners.

"I think basically what I’ve found out more than anything [since Newtown], the dysfunction that we have here has proven a lack of confidence in government," Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia told the Huffington Post. "Coming from gun states, knowing people like myself will defend the Second Amendment, yet having people that basically are just scared – even though [stronger background checks] make so much sense – scared that the government won't stop there."

He then added: "My thoughts and prayers are with these families and the loved ones and the little babies they lost."

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