A week after gun legislation suffered a stinging defeat in the Senate, an uncomfortable realization has settled over the Capitol that it will likely take another mass shooting or similar tragedy to reignite momentum for gun control.
President Obama called last week’s vote “round one.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged that it was “just the beginning.” But gun-control advocates, both inside and outside of Congress, have identified no immediate path forward to alter a political landscape that left them five votes short in the Senate of passing a bill requiring expanded background checks for gun purchases.
Focus in the Capitol has already shifted to immigration, renewed fiscal skirmishes, and the Boston bombings (though some questions remain over how the suspects obtained firearms). Even Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the chief Republican coauthor of the background-check plan, has said it is time to move on.
Proponents of new gun restrictions still hope to use the 2014 elections to upend the current dynamics, in which voting against the gun lobby is deeply feared, especially in GOP-leaning states. They plan to rely upon the impassioned pleas of the families of the Newtown shooting victims, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s money, and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ national stature. Before the next election, though, the truth is that another tragedy may be the only way to shake loose the legislation.
“Unfortunately, tragically, regrettably, there’ll be other incidents of gun violence that will remind us of how much is at stake,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has pushed hard for new gun laws after the December shooting that left 20 elementary school students dead.
The calls for stricter gun laws were loudest in the immediate aftermath of Newtown. But as the weeks and months passed, the powerful National Rifle Association, which opposed virtually any new firearm limits, including background checks, regained its footing.
On Wednesday, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough told Toomey that he was still shocked that the Senate couldn’t pass expanded background checks with 60 votes when it was an issue supported by “95 percent” of the public, as Scarborough put it.
“I would suggest that we heard from the 5 percent who opposed—several times from each one of them,” Toomey replied. “It was a much more vocal and much more passionate expression from that camp.”
To advance the bill in the future, added Toomey, “I think the most important thing, frankly, is members of Congress need to hear from people—and the people who support these background checks need to be as vocal as those who don’t.”
It is a shortcoming that gun-control advocates acknowledge. “We talk about that as the passion gap, and we have to close that,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He said his group had spent the last week “thanking and spanking” senators for their votes.
“If we really want to succeed, what we really need to do is demonstrate that our movement can reward allies and punish people who vote against us,” Everitt said.
Accusations that the White House did not move fast enough have been a recurrent critique of the administration’s handling of the gun issue after the Newtown massacre.
Expanding background checks reaps as much as 90 percent support in polling. But a new Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll shows far more division on the recent gun bill: 47 percent of Americans were “disappointed” or “angry” at the legislation’s defeat, but 39 percent were “very happy” or “relieved.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the other chief architect of the bipartisan compromise on background checks, suggested last Friday that the legislation would have proven “much more acceptable” if it had been on the floor in January. That’s when emotions still ran high after Newtown and the gun lobby was more divided.
“At that time we could have done something. So you seize the moment,” Manchin said, though he and Toomey didn’t reach a deal on background checks until April. Manchin has said he will continue to pressure his colleagues, one by one, though such an approach seems unlikely to break the deadlock.
Now, at least, Democrats and their allies have a package of gun-control measures—led by the Manchin-Toomey proposal—ready to be enacted practically immediately. Reid can bring the failed background-checks effort back to the floor at almost any time.
“The next Newtown is inevitable if we don’t act…. This is just our reality,” Everitt said. “Those things can help inform debate and galvanize people to act.”
This article appears in the April 25, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.