The attack by a lone gunman on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and six teachers, was supposed to be different – the last straw, the intolerable outrage that finally would prompt the nation to do something, anything, to address the problem of gun violence.
But today, as we approach Saturday’s first anniversary of the Newtown shooting, it should be apparent that this massacre had no more substantive impact than those that came before it. Twelve months later, we, as a nation, have failed to do even the easy things that might in some small way help prevent a future Newtown.
The Newtown massacre followed close on the heels of the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 12 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabriel Giffords, and the shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people and injured 70 others. At first, the calculated attack on an elementary school, the targeting of helpless children seemed certain to spur the American people to act.
President Barack Obama, father of two young daughters, appeared more angry and determined when addressing the nation the day after the shooting. He spoke forcefully about the need to change, to do more to prevent these attacks.
Gun-reform advocates in Congress talked of using the national outrage to build momentum for passage of at least a few measures designed to keep guns out of the hands of those such as the men who staged the attacks at Tucson, Aurora and Newtown. Ultimately, reformers focused on bare-bones legislation that would have expanded background checks to some private gun sales and limited the number of bullets that could be stored in a clip.
But even those modest bills proved to be too big a stretch, failing to pass the Senate. The outrage generated by Newtown could not overcome the power of the gun lobby.
Money is part of the reason. Gun rights groups spent $3.8 million – $2.2 million of that from the National Rifle Association – to lobby Congress in 2012, according to ProPublica.
By comparison, gun control groups as a whole spent $180,000 lobbying Congress the same year.
Yet the result, the stifling of reasonable gun reforms, appears to go against the national will. Polls taken as recently as October indicate that nearly 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, and a majority – 54 percent – support stricter gun control laws in general.
And the killing continues. In September a deranged gunman killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., not far from the nation’s Capitol, and the other smaller-scale shootings in workplaces and other public spaces claiming multiple victims often seem too frequent and too similar to keep straight.
No one can reasonably believe that it is possible to confiscate the guns of private owners. That isn’t the goal of most gun reformers, and it shouldn’t be.
But it is equally unreasonable to believe that any effort to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the wrong people is a step down the slippery slope to banning gun ownership altogether. Sensible Americans have to find a reasonable middle ground, one that does nothing to threaten responsible gun owership but which also permits reasonable efforts to curtail gun violence.
On Saturday, the anniversary of Newtown, we need to ask ourselves: If the indiscriminate murder of 20 small children and six school teachers can’t spur us to act, what can?