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If You Don't Think Newtown Changed America's Gun Debate, Consider These Facts

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A year after the horrific shooting in Newtown last December, one can be forgiven for thinking nothing’s changed in America’s gun debate. We still haven’t seen any major new federal laws passed, and President Obama’s push for expanded background checks and restrictions on high-capacity magazines went nowhere. Democrats in Congress still talk about revising the Obama proposals but most have given up hope of anything passing soon. Gun advocates remain committed to stopping Congress from passing any new laws, so much so that they even killed a proposal this week to expand the ban on undetectable guns to apply to all-plastic, 3D printed guns.

Nonetheless, the gun debate has changed in significant ways since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The gun control movement is reinvigorated after being moribund for nearly two decades. Today, thanks largely to Michael Bloomberg, there’s real money flowing into campaigns to support candidates favoring more restrictive gun laws. And, while legislation is stalled in Congress, a host of new laws have been passed at the state level. Of course, the gun advocates remain a powerful political force. Yet for the first time in years they have serious competition in the political marketplace. The gun debate is now more evenly matched than it has been in a long time.

After Republicans took the House in 1994, Democrats in Washington decided to steer clear of the gun control issue. They blamed the Republican victory on President Clinton’s support of two major gun control laws, the Brady Background Check law and the now-expired ban on certain military-style (or “assault”) weapons. Fearing that gun control was politically toxic, Democrats practically made it a plank in the party’s platform to Avoid Gun Control At All Costs. If nothing else, Newtown radically changed the Democrats’ political calculations. President Obama had barely mentioned gun control during his first term, even earning an F (!) rating from the Brady Center, one of the nation’s leading gun control advocacy groups. After Newtown, however, Obama moved gun control to the very top of his second-term agenda. While his push failed, it established gun control as an issue of national priority.

We’ve also seen a wave of new money flowing into elections to support pro-control candidates. For the past 30 years or so, nearly all the money that went into campaigns went to anti-control candidates. The NRA and gun enthusiasts spent millions to elect candidates opposed to new gun control laws. By contrast, the Brady Center and other gun control groups were struggling just to stay afloat and couldn’t afford to be active contributors. Since Newtown, more political money than ever has gone to the side seeking new restrictions. Led by New York’s outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg and his Independence USA political action committee, gun control advocates have spent considerable funds on races from Virginia to Illinois to Colorado. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Bloomberg’s PAC outspent the NRA by a wide margin—and helped secure a victory for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the NRA’s own home state.

After Congress dropped the ball, several states picked it up and passed new laws that require universal background checks and impose new restrictions on magazines and military-style rifles. Connecticut, Colorado, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and California all enacted strict new gun measures. While many of these states lean decidedly left, it is unlikely we would have seen so much new legislation in the absence of Newtown and the Obama push. It’s also noteworthy that in states like New York and Maryland the gun control effort was led by potential Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley, who might have otherwise treated gun control as a hot potato. And while many gun control advocates are disappointed that Congress didn’t pass new laws, the president did take some limited, but valuable, executive actions, including freeing up more money to fund research into gun violence prevention.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Congress didn’t act on guns. Democrats and Republicans on the hill are in an historic stalemate, seemingly unable to agree on anything. Why would we expect something different on such a controversial, hot-button issue like guns? The failure of Congress to act may say much more about political dysfunction in Washington than it does about gun politics.

None of this is meant to suggest that gun control advocates are now winning the political battle over the right to bear arms in America. Gun advocates have fought back mightily and, in many cases, secured victories. Not only did they defeat Obama’s reforms, they were also able to recall two Colorado lawmakers who had supported strengthening that state’s laws. And we’ve seen state and local governments pass new laws loosening gun restrictions. Illinois revised its laws to allow people to carry concealed guns in public. There have been new laws allowing people to bring guns into bars and churches, and laws protecting the identity of gun permit holders. In fact, since Newtown, more state laws have been passed easing gun laws than laws tightening them, 70 to 39. 

Indeed, despite his notoriously tone-deaf appearance a week after the Newtown tragedy the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre appears more prescient than ever. He insisted that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun was a good guy with one. Schools around the country have taken that advice to heart, hiring armed guards to protect their students from madmen. We’re seeing more security in places where the public gathers, from shopping malls to football stadiums. If we can’t keep guns out of the hands of madmen, at least we can keep guns out of some public gathering spots. We are turning into an Inspection Nation.

Twelve months after Newtown, the gun debate is anything but resolved. Gun advocates have won their share of political battles, but so have gun control advocates. Both sides are politically powerful and making their voices heard. Today, there’s a real debate about America’s gun violence and what to do about it. That alone speaks volumes about how far we’ve come since Newtown.