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Gun Control Loses in a Swing State

Not much more than a year ago, Jessica Ghawi, an effervescent college student and aspiring sports broadcaster, was shot and killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle by a gunman at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora. Her mother and stepfather went to work full-time for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence a few months later, after the Newtown shootings. They were crushed when the U.S. Senate fell a view votes short of a filibuster-proof majority to pass legislation expanding background checks for gun purchases, but they enjoyed several triumphs at the state level, not least the passage of a comprehensive package of reforms in Colorado, where, despite the state’s strong gun culture, Gov. John Hickenlooper and a majority of legislators decided that after two major massacres in the state in less than 15 years, it was time to take action.

And last night, they were on hand in Colorado, far from their San Antonio home, to watch as two of those legislators, Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, lost their seats in a recall election prompted by their votes—Morse by an excruciatingly narrow margin, Giron by a wider one. The disappointment of Ghawi's mother, Sandy Phillips, was edging toward anger when I reached her as the votes were coming in. “It’s the tyranny of the minority here,” she said. “It’s a very, very small group of people but they have enough power and money behind them to pull it off…whereas as usual the Middle American who doesn’t think things are that bad doesn’t get out and do anything, and that’s how you get situations like you get tonight.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The gun control movement, led by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, had seized on the Colorado recall as a way to prove that legislators in tough environments could vote for common-sense gun legislation and survive the wrath of the National Rifle Association—a plausible mission given that more and more lawmakers targeted by the NRA have been winning elections in recent years. Giron went so far as to tell me late last month that the future of Bloomberg’s group was riding on the recall: “For Mayors Against Illegal Guns, if they lose even one of these seats, they might as well fold it up. And they understand that.”

Giron was a bit heedless in that assessment. The truth was, even with the newfound strength of the gun control movement post-Newtown, the recall election had all the makings of a real fight. It was made to order for the gun-rights side, which, even with the rise of a real grass-roots movement of gun control advocates, still enjoys its famed “intensity gap” that makes it much easier to turn its supporters for an event like this: an off-cycle, one-off election at a time when most people are thinking more about making it to back to school night than heading to the polls. Further playing to their advantage, recall supporters succeeded in barring the use of mail-in ballots, the way that a majority of Coloradans now vote in normal elections.

Finally, the gun-rights side was fighting on favorable terrain—it had picked the five most vulnerable legislators who voted for the reforms and had managed to get enough signatures for a recall bid for only two of them. Morse and Giron were, by that process of natural selection, the ideal legislators to be turned into examples—Morse had won his conservative-leaning Colorado Springs district by less than a percentage point in 2010, and was not even planning to run for reelection next year, given that he was up against term limits. “The gun lobby chose their targets well,” Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told me last night. “These are tough districts with a lot of guns.” More generally, he said, “It’s the kind of political tactic the gun lobby specializes in, low-turnout elections where the only people interested at the beginning of the process are people who want to throw people out.”

Recall opponents were faced with a familiar conundrum: getting voters to think of gun control in its particulars. The main elements of the new law—requiring universal background checks and limiting magazines to 15 rounds—have strong backing in Colorado polls, yet a recent poll found a slight majority opposed to the new law. “People want background checks yet they don’t want ‘gun control,’” said Jennifer Hope, a Denver activist in favor of stricter regulation. Making matters worse for the two senators was that they and their Democratic colleagues have been moving forward on a host of liberal priorities of late, among them marriage equality, marijuana legalization, taxes and renewable energy standards. This brought in groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-founded organization which is not particularly focused on gun rights but which lent a strong hand (it did not have to disclose its spending, under a loophole in campaign finance laws) to back up investments by the NRA, which contributed $360,000, and firearms manufacturers like the one that donated 20,000 ammunition magazines to the effort.

But the anti-recall side could hardly plead the underdog on this one. Bloomberg contributed $350,000, philanthropist Eli Broad kicked in another $250,000, rank and file gun control supporters sent countless checks from across the country and the broadening of the race to other issues brought in other progressive groups, such as Planned Parenthood.

If there was a clear deficit to point to, it may have been in basic manpower. The senators got a big hand from a group that did not even exist one year—Moms Demand Action, a nationwide organization founded by Shannon Watts, an Indianapolis mother and former communications executive who was shocked into action by the Sandy Hook shootings. In addition to door to door canvasses by its Colorado members, including Hope, the group got 200 members nationwide to make 10 calls each to the two districts. That’s impressive, given how hard it’s been to stir grass-roots activism on the gun control side in the past. “It’s hard to appreciate what a sea change it is that there are working moms out there who are making 10 or 15 calls on this,” said Glaze. But such efforts are going to need to expand much more if groups like Moms Demand Action want to have the sort of impact they envision on the 2014 midterms, when this fight once again goes national, with several senators who voted for the background check bill up for reelection in tough states, notably Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.

And it remains that national fight that still matters most, by far, given that there is only so much impact state laws can have when guns are so easily trafficked from states with lax regulations to ones with stricter ones. Gun control advocates say they are still quietly working to line up just the handful of additional votes in the U.S. Senate from members who have faced serious flak back home for their votes against the background check bill, for which polls nationwide continue to show strong majority backing. The goal is to have another vote before the midterm campaigns ramp up—maybe even around a certain one-year mark in December. “The one-year anniversary of Newtown is a pretty compelling moment to call a vote,” Glaze said.

That is, if those key senators don’t take a cautionary message from the Colorado result. Gun control advocates are dearly hoping that legislators elsewhere will recognize the unique circumstances of the recall, and also recognize that, for once, the gun control side was actually in the fight in a big way, providing backup. “The support they got from people all around the country demonstrated that when legislators take risks to protect public safety, somebody is going to stand behind them, and eventually the tide will turn,” said Glaze. Watts, of Moms Demand Action, goes even further and casts the recall as the gun-rights movement making a Battle of the Bulge-like last stand, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Colorado taxpayers. “It’s a symbolic win at best for a small, dedicated group of extremists,” she said. “As a mom, I know a ridiculous temper tantrum when I see one. The gun lobby after Newtown is trying desperately to flex its muscles.” She urged patience: “Making an election when people are unlikely to vote, and making it hard to vote, and instilling fear in the people most likely to vote, they’ve had decades to create this unhappy pattern. This change in America isn’t going to happen overnight.”

For now, there is one consolation, Watts said: “The law that these courageous legislators championed is going to stand.” That is true, and Morse, a gun owner and former police officer, said frequently on the recall campaign trail that losing his seat would be worth it for that alone.

And it’s in search of those legislators—and the voters who will overcome apathy and back them up when the time comes—that Jessica Ghawi’s mother will continue on. “It does send the signal that if you don’t vote the way a special interest wants you to vote, we’ll take you down, and that bothers me,” Phillips said. “But it just makes me and my husband and the other people that see what’s happening with guns in America more determined. We will keep doing it until we draw our last breath.”

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.