In recent years, America has had many scenes of mass shootings. The campus of Virginia Tech. A shopping center in Tucson, Ariz. A movie theater in Aurora, Colo. A temple in Oak Creek, Wis. None put gun control back on the national agenda in a serious way. Then came the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., after last year’s election, and that all changed. Or so it seemed.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.” — President Barack Obama at a Dec. 16, 2012, prayer vigil for the 20 first-graders and six staff gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In January, Obama laid out proposals for stronger gun laws: a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, expanded background checks for gun buyers, tougher penalties for firearms trafficking and more.
When Obama announced his new gun control proposals, he acknowledged passing them through Congress would be difficult but vowed to “put everything I’ve got into this.” It turns out his everything wasn’t enough.
Entrenched support for gun rights and a powerfully organized campaign by the National Rifle Association blocked efforts to pass a single aspect of Obama’s package, the first attempt to significantly change the nation’s gun laws in more than two decades.
Obama hadn’t promoted gun control during his first term or his two presidential campaigns, but he said after Sandy Hook that “if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”
An effort to expand background checks to purchases at gun shows and online appeared Obama’s best hope for victory. Polling found that up to 90 percent of Americans supported the idea, and two senators who had been backed by the NRA reached a bipartisan compromise that proponents hoped could win enough support. But even that fell short in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The NRA and its supporters argued, correctly, that background checks would not have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting. Gunman Adam Lanza used a rifle purchased by his mother, whom he also killed before going to the elementary school. Opponents of Obama’s proposals also warned that background checks would be a precursor to a federal registry of gun owners, even though such a listing is forbidden by federal law. Obama angrily responded that “the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied” by claiming it would “create some sort of Big Brother gun registry.”
Obama is promising to continue the fight, but it’s unclear what his next steps will be. Gun control advocates hope the loss will energize their supporters to complain to lawmakers and perhaps create a movement to counter the power of the NRA and the gun owners who oppose new gun laws.
The NRA says it’s taking its opposition seriously. “We are prepared for a very long war and a very expensive war,” association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ One in a series examining President Barack Obama’s campaign promises and what he is doing, or not doing, to keep them