It has now been one month since twenty 6-and-7-year-old children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The grief and outrage following this second deadliest school shooting in US history was predictable – and also perhaps different.
Since the Columbine shooting in 1999 there have been more than forty School shootings in the United States, including Virginia Tech where 33 were killed. In his remarks at the Newtown memorial service the President referred to four mass shootings that have occurred on his watch:
“Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.”
And then he added what many have been thinking:
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”
There has been outrage and a call to “do something” after every mass murder, but this time does feel somehow different. Perhaps it’s the fact that an entire class of kindergartners was gunned down and we all feel a sense of guilt. In the President’s words, “We’re not doing enough.” And we know it.
But can this time really be any different from the all-too-many times that have preceded it? Change always comes slowly, but perhaps no more slowly than in the arena of curbing gun violence in the United States. Is there any reason to believe that meaningful change is going to occur this time?
Why might this time be different?
In addition to a groundswell of public opinion in favor of at least the most basic of sensible gun regulations, there is a growing list of persons of influence who have put their reputation and even their political futures on the line this time. Here’s a brief list of the people who have the potential to make the difference this time:
President Obama – Just days after the shooting, the President declared that he would make gun control a “central issue” as he opens his second term, promising to submit broad new firearm proposals to Congress no later than January and to employ the full power of his office to overcome deep-seated political resistance. He has already put the Vice-President in charge of a new gun control task force charged with proposing new initiatives and legislation to deal with a broad range of issues related to gun violence, with some form of “gun control” being the most obvious and arguably the most difficult.
The President’s leadership will be critical to anything really happening this time. He has put the full weight of his office behind the effort, and that is certainly what will be needed if this time is to be any different. There have even been reports that the President will bypass Congress altogether and address gun control with one or more “Executive Orders.”
Vice-President Biden – No politician could be better suited to the challenge of passing federal gun control legislation than Joe Biden. Over the past four decades, Biden has been one of the most consistent and effective advocates of gun control and violence prevention legislation. In 1994, Biden shepherded the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act through the Senate, a near miracle six years in the making. Biden’s series of gatherings at the White House, aimed at trying to create some consensus on what to do about gun violence, have already taken place and the first recommendations are expected on Tuesday, in time for the president to push in his State of the Union Address.
Gabby Giffords – In her previous life as a congresswoman from a conservative-leaning Arizona district, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) was a reliably gun-friendly legislator. She and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, are gun owners to this day. In a June 26, 2008 message on her congressional Web site, Giffords wrote, “As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. In February, I was proud to sign the Amicus Brief in District of Columbia v. Heller asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling that overturned the long standing DC gun ban. This is a common sense decision that reaffirms the Constitutional right – and Arizona tradition – of owning firearms. I commend the Court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms.”
Last week, however, Gabby and husband Mark Kelly launched a new organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, with a goal of countering the influence of the NRA and other “special interests purporting to represent gun owners but really advancing the interests of an ideological fringe.” In a USA TODAY op-ed she wrote, “In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans, and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary — nothing at all.”
Giffords went on to write, “As a Western woman and a Persian Gulf War combat veteran who have exercised our Second Amendment rights, we don’t want to take away your guns any more than we want to give up the two guns we have locked in a safe at home. What we do want is what the majority of NRA members and other Americans want: Responsible changes in our laws to require responsible gun ownership and reduce gun violence.”
As a gun owner, a former Congresswoman and a gun violence victim herself, she could be a game-changer this time around.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – Like Gabby Giffords, Harry Reid represents a conservative gun-toting state (Nevada) and has earned the NRA’s support. He voted against the expired 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1993, voted against extending the ban in 2004, and has balked at tying other mass shootings to new gun control laws. After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, he warned against a “rush to judgment,” and after this past summer’s Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, he said there was not time to debate firearm laws in the Senate.
Recently, however, he said the time has come. “In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “We have no greater responsibility than keeping our most vulnerable and most precious resource, our children, safe. And every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to do just that.”
In the days after the shooting in Newtown, Reid’s posture has changed. Echoing the President, Reid said recently on the Senate floor, “We need to accept the reality that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens.” This week an adviser to Reid, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Reid’s feelings on gun control have changed, adding “He’s in a different place than he was in 2010.”
As Senate majority leader, Reid has great influence to speed or slow the consideration of legislation on Capitol Hill. He’s another potential game-changer.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) – Feinstein has already prepared an assault weapons ban with much tighter language than the one passed in 1994. It names 120 gun models that would be outlawed and makes a weapon with one military characteristic the bar for illegality (in 1994, it was two). The bill would also outlaw magazines – for assault weapons or handguns – that hold more than ten bullets. It would grandfather in existing owners of assault rifles but require them to register the weapons and pass a background check. Feinstein may also propose an aggressive federal buyback program.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) – Manchin, endorsed by the NRA in both of his Senate campaigns, was the first NRA-backed lawmaker to say everything is different now. “We’ve never been in these waters before — we’ve had horrific crimes throughout our country, but never have we seen so many of our babies put in harm’s way and their life taken from them and the grief,” he told CNBC. “That’s changed me, and it’s changed most Americans I would think.” On CNN, Manchin added, “I’m committed to bringing the dialogue that would bring a total change, and I mean a total change.”
Joe Scarborough – The MSNBC’s Morning Joe was a Republican congressman from Florida between 1995 and 2001. He recently announced on his show, “I am a conservative Republican who received the NRA’s highest ratings over four terms in Congress, but when I heard of the shooting I realized the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want for my children.” The Second Amendment, he added, “does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-styled, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want…. Politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo. They must instead be forced to protect our children.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) – Warner, who represents the NRA’s home state of Virginia, said recently that he now joins “with the President and reasonable folks in both parties and the overwhelming majority of Americans who are gun owners who believe that we’ve got to put stricter rules on the books,” he told local TV station WBBT. “I believe every American has Second Amendment rights. The ability to hunt is part of our culture. I have an NRA rating of an ‘A,’ but enough is enough.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) – Yarmuth, a moderate Bluegrass State Democrat, hasn’t been a big opponent of gun regulation, but he hasn’t been a proponent either. That changed following Sandy Hook. “I agree that Americans have the right to defend themselves and their property,” he said in a statement. “I believe even more fiercely that I have the right, and every child has the right, to be safe from guns.” Growing up, he said, “I thought guns were the things that protected us from the bad guys — the outlaws, the Nazis, the Red Menace, and the gangsters. Now I know, through painful history, that guns are much more likely to be used by the bad guys or the mentally unstable against the rest of us.” In Congress, “I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years, and I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy.”
Scott Brown – until last week the Republican Senator from Massachusetts, he is still an influential conservative. “I’m not in favor of doing any additional federal regulations relating to any type of weapons or federal gun changes. I feel it should be left up to the states,” he said in January of 2011, in response to the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where US Representative Gabrielle Giffords was wounded.
Brown has switched positions, now saying a federal assault weapons ban is needed:
“What happened in Newtown where those children were subject to that level of violence is beyond my comprehension. As a state legislator in Massachusetts I supported an assault weapons ban thinking other states would follow suit. But unfortunately, they have not and innocent people are being killed. As a result, I support a federal assault weapons ban, perhaps like the legislation we have in Massachusetts.”
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) – According to USA Today, another Republican, Senator Rob Portman, also said he “would be open to considering new gun restrictions, including a ban on assault weapons being pushed by President Obama and congressional Democrats.”
Not willing to abandon the NRA, however, Portman says he recognizes there is more to the Connecticut shooting tragedy than access to a weapon, and he urges policymakers to take a “holistic” approach. He noted that “if there had been more security I supposed it could have saved a lot of lives.”
On the state and local level there are some notable and influential voices being raised as well:
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – pushing New York to become the first state to enact major new gun laws in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Governor Cuomo is proposing one of the country’s most restrictive bans on assault weapons.
New York is one of seven states that already ban at least some assault weapons. But Mr. Cuomo has described the existing law as having “more holes than Swiss cheese,” and he wants to broaden the number of guns and magazines covered by the law while also making it harder for gun makers to tweak their products to get around the ban.
Since the shootings in Newtown, Gov. Cuomo has been trying to negotiate an agreement on gun laws with legislative leaders in Albany – he even contemplated calling them back into special session last month – and the talks continued into Tuesday, as the governor sought an agreement before his speech.
Gov. Cuomo, a shotgun owner, has long spoken in favor of tougher gun control but has not used his considerable political muscle to make the issue a priority over his two years as governor. Now, citing the recent killings, he is seeking to strike a deal that could be used as a model in other statehouses.
“I think what the nation is saying now after Connecticut, what people in New York are saying is ‘Do something, please,’” Cuomo told reporters recently.
Update: This week the Governor signed into law the first new gun control legislation to pass since Sandy Hook.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York – Bloomberg has praised President Obama’s recent announcements and said he offered his “full support” to Vice-President Biden in a phone conversation recently. But Bloomberg, a vocal advocate of tougher gun control, also urged the president to take executive actions in the meantime, including making a recess appointment of a new director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Republicans have blocked an appointment to the post for years.
“The country needs his leadership if we are going to reduce the daily bloodshed from gun violence that we have seen for too long,” Bloomberg said of President Obama.
The individuals named above have the potential to tip the scales in favor of a different outcome following the Sandy Hook massacre. Many of them have been gun owners, gun rights advocates and NRA supporters in the past. Even the President has been lukewarm on gun control – until now. And while all of them are calling for a broad discussion of all aspects of violence in the country, including everything from mental health care to violent video games, for most of them the immediate issue is clearly curbing gun violence and doing so with some form of new legislation. And for many of them, this represents a dramatic change of position.
Why will this time NOT be any different?
While many of those named above have recently and dramatically changed their stance in the wake of the most recent shootings, the majority of those who have historically stood in the way of efforts to curb the proliferation of guns have not changed their position at all.
Sandy Hook has not changed the position of the NRA nor its most vocal supporters. Both the NRA and their supporters in Congress were conspicuously silent for a full week following the Sandy Hook murders, and most have been in a ‘no comment’ mode since then. The infamous exception has been the rant from the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre calling for arming every teacher in the nation.
Opposition to any change in the gun control climate will continue to come from the obvious suspects: the NRA and the NRA-supported Representatives and Senators on Capitol Hill. Many of these representatives come from gerrymandered districts whose voters will reelect them every time, making them largely deaf to national public opinion.
In addition to the NRA and a largely conservative Congress, the other reasons to be skeptical of anything being different this time around are the ever-present Supreme Court and the Second Amendment. The specter of a legal challenge will be influencing everything that is considered and every piece of legislation that is introduced, debated and ultimately passed by the list of participants named above.
Which brings us back to the initial question:
Will this time be different?
With strong Presidential leadership and the vocal participation in the process of an impressive number of influential folk who were quietly sitting on the sidelines until Sandy Hook touched them, it is possible.
But history certainly suggests it won’t be easy.
It is quite possible that meaningful change will, in fact, come about as the result of a person not named on the list above. Most probably it will be the collective voices of ordinary Americans demanding a change, insisting on sensible gun regulation, which will ultimately make the difference. We were all touched by the horror of the Sandy Hook shooting. Some who had previously been against any form of gun control have, like their elected representatives, changed their minds. And many more are saying aloud, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end.”
In the President’s words, “We must come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children. This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
“And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?
“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?
“If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
If we are to change, if we are to surprise the Gabby Giffords of this world and really do something this time, then we will have to loudly and clearly demand change from the President and the rest of our influential leaders and legislators. We will need to demonstrate that we support them. We need to remind them who they really represent. We need to tell them that the time for discussion has passed, that we’re no longer going to accept excuses. The time for action is now. We need to demand their action.
Only then will we be able to say, “This time it was different.”
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JOHN LUNDIN (www.JohnLundin.com) is a self-described “spiritual agitator” and the author of THE NEW MANDALA – Eastern Wisdom for Western Living, written in collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.