Gun control fight not over, Newtown families vow as anniversary nears

The families have converged on Washington to meet with President Obama and lawmakers and read names of those killed by gun violence. Friday marks six months since the Newtown shootings.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Supporters and family members of the Newtown, Conn. shooting victims form a human "ribbon" on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, looking toward the Washington Monument, on the sixth month anniversary of the Newtown shootings.

Family members of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims joined with other gun-control supporters in Washington Thursday to form a human “ribbon of remembrance.” For hours, they read the names of nearly 4,800 people who have been killed by gun violence in the six months since the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School – including the 20 children and six adults slain there that day.

In a tribute to victims’ families, key Democratic lawmakers vowed at a noon press conference that they would continue pushing for a vote on universal background checks in the Senate – which failed for lack of five votes in April – and in the House, which has not voted on any gun-control legislation since the Newtown tragedy.

“I am here today to remind Congress of what happened to my family,” said Jillian Soto, the younger sister of Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, who was killed while confronting the gunman. “Just last week, more people were murdered in Santa Monica,” she said of the California shooting during the press conference. “Congress cannot continue to allow guns to be in the hands of these madmen.... We will continue to fight until Congress stands up and does something to make us safer from gun violence.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California thanked the family members for turning their grief into action and vowed they would not give up the push for universal background checks. “You are the key to our getting something done,” Senator Reid said, “because the American people identify with what happened at that little elementary school in Connecticut.”

The families’ activism – combined with a continued drumbeat from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the coalition he supports, Mayors Against Illegal Guns – is once again drawing attention to the gun-control debate. But it’s unclear whether the momentum will be sustained enough to overcome many lawmakers’ opposition to more federal restrictions on guns.

“It’s difficult to keep this issue on the agenda,” says Harry Wilson, a political science professor at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., and author of “Guns, Gun Control, and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms.” “No one ever wants to say, ‘We’ve given up,’ ... and to a limited extent, I would take [legislators] at their word on that,” he says. “But if you’ve lost that issue and there are six other issues you want to pursue, you can’t spend all your time on one single issue.”

Gun-control activists contend the momentum for reform has strengthened rather than faded.

Those affected by gun violence have always kept at it, but now, more broadly, “Americans have woken up to the fact that we don’t have the gun laws on the books that we need,” says Brian Malte, senior national policy director at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington. After the failed vote in the Senate, “the anger and outrage ... has only made people more intense,” he says, and he has heard from lawmakers that the calls and e-mails from the gun-control side are pouring in at an unprecedented level.

Thursday’s events were organized by the Newtown Action Alliance, a grass-roots group working for more gun-control laws. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Newtown family members also met with both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. They delivered a letter signed by more than 80 organizations, emphasizing that about 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases. They were also expected to meet with President Obama Thursday.

By some measures, public opinion is in the same place it was before the Newtown shootings. Americans are fairly evenly split on whether it is more important to control gun ownership (50 percent) or to protect the right to own guns (48 percent), according to a May survey by the Pew Research Center. (In July 2012, the split was 47-46.)

Sen. Christopher Murphy (D) of Connecticut was among several lawmakers Thursday who mentioned behind-the-scenes conversations that gave gun-control supporters hope about the possibility of garnering enough votes for another try on background checks in the Senate. He also chided colleagues who had not agreed to meet with Newtown victims’ families, urging them to “have the guts” to do so and predicting that if they did, “something will be unlocked in your heart that will get you to yes.”

Representative Pelosi said that if some brave senators can step forward to pass the bill, there is parallel legislation in the House that could then be taken up, so it wouldn’t be for naught.

Failing that, gun-control activists are trying to be a counterweight to the National Rifle Association, telling lawmakers that there will be a price to pay when it comes time for reelection.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns is sponsoring a 25-state bus tour to pressure lawmakers. The tour starts Friday, the six-month anniversary of the Newtown shootings.

Yet the political calculus could be complicated by Mayor Bloomberg’s recent targeting of four Democrats who sided with most Republicans in the Senate in voting down the background-checks bill. In a recent letter, he asked donors not to support Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

“Bloomberg is the wild card in gun control,” Professor Wilson says.

When asked about Bloomberg at the Thursday press conference, Reid said he had spoken to the mayor and reminded him that “to have Republicans control the Senate is a sure sign we will never get anything done.” But he characterized Bloomberg as a “free spirit” with the financial means to pursue his passion for gun control as he sees fit.

Reid also said that he would not accept a “watered down” version of the bill and that he would not call for a vote unless he knew he had the votes to win.

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