For Newtown's gun-control families, a year of mixed results

Newtown, Conn., families who became gun control activists after the horror of last December are today part of a revitalized movement. Their big push for reform of federal gun laws failed, but the picture in the states is more mixed.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
A memorial honoring those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last Dec. 14 is erected outside a home in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 10, 2013.

It seemed simply another sad fact of a terrible day – that Newtown, Conn., would become synonymous with meaningless violence at its worst. Yet a year later, Newtown is becoming associated with a brighter notion: hope. 

That's how some parents and other family members of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School see their newfound political activism dedicated to bringing tougher gun rules to a gun-loving nation. Yes, they've experienced major setbacks, but they also have been the catalyst to transforming a lackluster gun-control movement into a spirited force that has jarred pro-gun America. 

On Thursday, one group of those parents, the Newtown Action Alliance, will hold a National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in honor of some 30,000 people who died of gunshot wounds in America this year. The vigil is intended not to politicize the Newtown anniversary, but rather to inspire acts of kindness and service to others, according to organizer David Ackert of Newtown.

The number of gun control groups nationwide has doubled in the past year – some led by small coalitions of Sandy Hook survivors, others led by mothers not directly touched by the tragedy. Many experts cite Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America as a growing legislative force on behalf of gun control, where suddenly state legislators across the US are being confronted by women demanding change – a kind of Mothers Against Drunk Driving redux.

In the year since 20 children and six school staff members were gunned down in Newtown, eight states have enacted 42 pieces of gun control legislation (with California leading the way), ranging from tweaks to concealed-carry laws to outright bans of certain guns and kinds of ammunition. Suddenly flush with cash from new donors and millionaire activists such as Michael Bloomberg, the groups are ratcheting up grass-roots efforts nationwide in a bid to put politicians on notice ahead of next year’s fall elections.

“We couldn't protect our kids that day. We couldn't protect our teachers that day. But we have a saying in our group: 'Our pain should not be wasted,' ” Michele Gay, who lost her daughter Josephine in the attack and who now is a school safety advocate, told the Cape Cod Times in September.

In that way, Newtown turned the key on a movement that had been slowly building as the modern scourge of mass shootings wore on – Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colo.; the Washington Navy Yard. “Newtown is no longer a place, it’s a movement,” Newtown resident Monte Frank wrote Dec. 9 in Britain's newspaper The Guardian.

“There’s never been such a critical mass of highly visible leaders from among survivors and victims,” agrees Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. “These moms are really trying to challenge the idea that guns have a sort of central place in our public life.”

For some, it has become the toughest battle of their lives. The US Senate's failure to advance a major gun control package was demoralizing to Newtown parents who had personally pleaded with lawmakers to take action. President Obama, flanked by the parents, called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”

Moreover, since the Sandy Hook massacre, states have approved no fewer than 93 laws that protect and affirm gun rights – more than double the number of control laws. Because many of those new laws liberalized the carrying of concealed weapons, it’s basically easier to get and use a gun today than it was a year ago, Paul Barrett, author of “Glock: The rise of America’s gun,” told WBUR in Boston on Dec. 5.

Still, the push by the Newtown parents, aided by Democrats in Congress and in statehouses, has put gun rights activists in a rare defensive posture, possibly posing a threat to gun rights advocates' decade-old movement to normalize the carrying of both visible and concealed guns.

In the past year, eight US states – mostly blue ones in New England and the coastal West, but also “purple” Colorado – approved gun control legislation. In New York and Connecticut, they weren’t merely symbolic changes, either, but rather bans on certain kinds of magazines and guns. The result in New York City, at least, is that some gun owners are getting letters from authorities demanding that they turn in their weapons.

“Almost everything has changed since Newtown,” adds Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in San Francisco. “With Sandy Hook, something about it has stuck with people, and maybe that’s because, for those of us willing to contemplate what happened there, it’s hard to wipe that image away once you’ve let it in. We’re not able to turn it off; we’re not willing to pretend it didn’t happen.”

An overarching question from critics is whether grief is blinding some surviving parents to the fact that the laws they’re lobbying for probably wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza, who used his mother’s legally obtained weapons to bust into the elementary school and open fire on grade-schoolers.

Newtown parents were “exploited … [by] politicians who thought they would be nice props for their theater," says Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America, in a phone interview. "But I certainly don’t put the blame” on the parents, he adds. “They were grieving, emotional, and so they were cooperative.”

But Pratt concedes that his group has struggled after Newtown on one key legislative front. Efforts to repeal “gun-free zones” have failed to get any real support in Congress, or elsewhere, in the wake of Sandy Hook. Gun-free zones “is one place where people who normally support us are just stuck,” he says.

So far, the gun issue seems as polarized as the rest of America’s politically divided geography. The upshot: Gun-friendly states have become gun-friendlier; gun-anxious states have become more gun-averse.

According to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 52 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws, 31 percent like the status quo, and 15 percent say gun laws should be looser. The news service notes that the strength of gun control support has waned in the past year; in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting , some 58 percent wanted tougher gun laws. 

Yet the Newtown parents seem to have helped to move the needle. In several specific instances, the political picture has taken on surprising nuance unthinkable a year ago.

In gun-friendly Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) vetoed a “gun control nullification” bill that would have prevented Montana police from enforcing any new federal gun laws. And in Virginia voters handily chose a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, as their new governor, despite his jab on the stump that he “doesn’t care” that the NRA gave him an F rating.

In Colorado, on the other hand, voters recalled two pro-gun-control state legislators, and a third one stepped down after the legislature enacted tough new gun laws and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed them into law.

“Right now [the politics are] very in flux, with both sides trying to prove that you can vote for what by historical standards is pretty moderate gun control and survive [or perish] electorally – that’s why advocates for gun rights are pointing to Colorado, and [gun control advocates] are pointing to Virginia,” says Ms. Goss at Duke.

The gun control activism has also kept the nation focused on Newtown, a quaint New England bedroom community that since the shootings has yearned for, more than anything, privacy.

Moreover, not all those who suffered grievous loss have lined up behind gun control reform. Mark Mattioli, who lost his son, James, at Sandy Hook, has spoken out against the push for gun control by many of his neighbors. But his political expression has its roots in the same grief as the others. He told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in April that, “I had a plan for how to make this world better and my son was a big part of that plan.”

Indeed, the general sense in town, writes Monitor correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald this week in an e-mail from Newtown, is that the survivor activism is part of a communal “self-reinvention” – and that locals “are willing to give accidental activists space to do what they feel they must do to bring something meaningful and good from the ashes.”

"No matter how much tragedy affects you, you have to find a way forward,” Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan in the attack, told the Associated Press after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in Wasington this week. “You have to invest in life."

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