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A Year After Newtown, Little Has Changed

Don't blame fate. Blame these politicians.

Douglas Healey/Getty

The first anniversary of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School weighs heavily, above all, for the unfathomable nature of the crime and unfathomable grief of the families. Adding to that weight, though, is the demoralization over the fact that the massacre has not led to any broad national policy response to the problem of gun violence. If there is any doubt that this failure had exacerbated the pain of the families, consider this haunting line from one of the reports on the April failure of the post-massacre gun-law reform bill: “Mr. Obama hugged the brother of one victim, Daniel Barden, who was 7, and told him to take care of his mother, who was sobbing quietly.”

Since April, there has been all manner of rationalization and second-guessing about how this failure happened. The administration should never let itself get sidetracked by the gun issue to begin with. The president should have done more to push for the legislation, which was dubbed Manchin-Toomey. Or perhaps he should have done less. Maybe, though the Newtown families fell in line with the law enforcement and gun control groups who wanted expanded background checks, the bill should have focused more narrowly on reforms that directly addressed what had happened in Newtown.

In the coming New York Times Magazine, Robert Draper does us all a service by breaking through some of the second-guessing in order to analyze just how the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups managed to block a measure that polls showed were supported by some 90 percent of Americans. His conclusion is not so different from the one I reached, in slightly more optimistic tones, last spring: As confounding as the NRA’s win was, there’s reason to believe that, in “unsteady little increments,” its influence is being reduced.

However, even Draper’s deeply-reported look at the NRA runs the risk of diverting attention from this simple fact: Last April, 100 senators had the opportunity to vote on sensible gun-law reforms that many Newtown families were pleading for. And 46 of them decided to vote against it, which in the contemporary Senate was enough to kill the bill. Each vote counts the same, but here, for posterity’s sake, are some “no’s” that stood out in particular:

Kelly Ayotte

The first-term Republican from New Hampshire is a former prosecutor and state attorney general and thus well acquainted with the porousness of gun laws, which require background checks at licensed dealerships to screen for past felonies or dangerous mental illness, but not at the gun shows or private sales where an estimated 40 percent of transactions occur. Voting for background checks would hardly hurt Ayotte’s general election chances in New Hampshire, a state Obama won by six points against a part-time New Hampshire resident, which has prompted speculation that her vote was cast to protect her prospects for a national GOP ticket. Confronted after the vote by Erica Lafferty, the daughter of the slain Sandy Hook principal, Ayotte gave a dissembling explanation that sent Lafferty striding from the room.

Max Baucus

The Montana Democrat has been allied with the NRA ever since voting for the 1994 assault weapons ban, an experience that he “felt he had paid dearly for,” according to a Baucus staffer quoted by Draper. Gun control supporters hoped they would get Baucus on this bill, though, given its moderation and the fact that he is nearing the end of his career – indeed, shortly after casting his vote, he announced that he is retiring. But he voted no nonetheless, a decision he explained thusly: “Montanans have told me loud and clear that they oppose any new gun controls.” These must not be the same Montanans who told pollsters, by a solid majority, that they backed expanded background checks, or the ones being listened to by Jon Tester, Baucus’s fellow Montana Democrat, who has many more elections ahead of him. He voted yes.

Jeff Flake

The freshman Republican from Arizona is quite conservative, but gun control advocates had high hopes for him because of his close relationship with his fellow Arizonan Gabrielle Giffords. When the congresswoman was shot in the head by a gunman in 2011, Flake was one of the first to rush to her side in the hospital. In early April, he sent a hand-written note to another Arizonan touched by gun violence, the mother of a young man killed in the Aurora cinema shooting, writing that “strengthening background checks is something we agree on.” In a Capitol hallway just before the vote, as the New York Times reported, “Ms. Giffords, who still struggles to speak because of the damage that a bullet did to her brain, grabbed Mr. Flake's arm and tried -- furiously and with difficulty -- to say that she had needed his vote. The best she could get out was the word ‘need.’” She didn’t get it. Flake faced a serious backlash back home, but, not facing reelection until 2018, shrugged it off: “That’s the beauty of a six-year term.”

Heidi Heitkamp

The freshman Democrat from North Dakota hails from a red state, but does not face reelection again until 2018. That puts her in a similar position as Joe Donnelly, the conservative Democrat from Indiana. He voted for Manchin-Toomey. Heitkamp voted against it, citing the many phone calls she’d gotten against the bill: “I’ve heard overwhelmingly from the people of North Dakota; and at the end of the day my duty is to listen to and represent the people of North Dakota.” According to one poll, 79 percent of North Dakotans surveyed backed expanded background checks – a far higher rate than even in Montana.

Rob Portman

The Ohio Republican, George W. Bush’s former budget director, is considered one of the more moderate members of the Republican caucus, a reputation affirmed when he came out in support of same-sex marriage after learning that his son is gay. But, as Draper notes, it was this very announcement that helped set Portman against Manchin-Toomey:

Portman told [parents of slain Sandy Hook children who came to talk to him], “You know, I have an A rating from the N.R.A., so I’m probably not going to support this.” At some point, 13-year-old James Barden, a brother of one of the victims, spoke up. “Senator, there’s over a thousand deaths from gun violence in Ohio every year,” he said. “I’m here on behalf of my little brother, Daniel. Do you think that this bill would save some of those lives?”

Portman sat quietly for a moment. Then he said: “It could. It could.” But what the Republican senator did not say was that he had already disappointed conservatives by coming out in favor of same-sex marriage because of his openly gay son. By the spring of 2013 it had become axiomatic in the Senate that among the three incendiary social issues of the moment — gun restrictions, same-sex marriage and comprehensive immigration reform — a moderate Democrat could afford to vote for two of them, and a conservative Republican only one. Portman had already selected his hot-button issue.

Also worth noting: having an A-rating from the NRA rating did not stop six other senators from backing the legislation, among them its co-sponsors, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, one of four Republicans to back the bill.

Mark Pryor

The Arkansas Democrat is up for reelection next year in a red state. That puts him in the same boat as Democrats Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. They voted for Manchin-Toomey nonetheless; he did not. Draper reports that Pryor was, like Baucus, haunted by the ghost of 1994, when his father, Senator David Pryor, voted for the assault weapons ban and “incurred the animus of the N.R.A.” But Pryor may have miscalculated – whereas Hagan and Landrieu enjoyed polling boosts from their vote for the bill, he did not, and all three now find themselves in trouble for unrelated reasons: the Obamacare rollout woes.

There are so many others that one could scrutinize as well: Ron Johnson and Dean Heller, Republicans from blue-state Wisconsin and Nevada; Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, who had declared a “sea change” in the politics of gun control after Newtown; Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who was leading the way in drafting a background-checks bill before a group to the right of the NRA started flooding his phones…All 46 had a choice and opted as they did.

I reached out to all of the above-mentioned no votes over the past two days to see if any of the senators were reassessing the issue and open to supporting a revised version of the bill. The only one that responded to the question on the record was the office of Senator Flake. Wrote his spokeswoman: “No, he’s not reassessing, and no, not open to a revised version.”

It’s not handwritten, but that Aurora mom Flake corresponded with surely gets the message.