One year after Newtown killings, gun control proponents feel dejected

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The failed push for stronger federal gun control laws after last December’s shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., has left its proponents in Congress dejected, and leaves one of President Obama’s top policy goals without any clear path forward.

On Tuesday, the White House announced $100 million in funding for new mental health services as part as part of the administration’s response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but expanded background checks for gun sales, a ban on assault weapons and other long-sought measures remain as elusive as ever.

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Gun control advocates say the shooting led to important state reforms, and the White House has touted a series of executive actions to curb violence, but congressional Democrats concede the move toward major federal gun reforms is dead, at least for now.

“If we can’t get common-sense gun legislation as a result of Newtown, where 20 young children were killed, we’ll never get it,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. “I don’t know what could happen to cause us to act, if we don’t act when our children are being slain.”

Twenty-eight people, including shooter Adam Lanza, died in the Dec. 14 killing spree, the second most deadly by a single gunman in U.S. history, after the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech.

The shooting spawned a flurry of federal bills calling for universal background checks, prohibitions on certain assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines as well as tougher gun trafficking penalties, among other measures.

Obama threw the weight of the White House behind the push, saying Newtown should be an impetus for true reforms.

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage?” he questioned at a memorial for the victims. “That the politics are too hard?”

Ultimately, that proved to be the case. Optimism was gradually replaced by disappointment for gun control proponents in Congress, as no major gun legislation passed in 2013.

The biggest blow came in April, when the Senate took up a bipartisan measure to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales. 

That amendment, offered in April by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), and seen as gun control supporters’ best chance for a victory, fell six votes short of approval. Supporters of the measure point to polls showing more than nine in 10 Americans support strengthened federal oversight of firearm purchases.

“The fact that we can’t even take up universal background checks that 94 percent of American people support ... is just beyond the pale,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.).

“I think it’s a moral outrage,” agreed Rep. Rosa DeLauro, another Connecticut Democrat. 

Gun rights advocates, who viewed the legislation as an infringement on their Second Amendment rights, say Congress’s post-Newtown push failed because of public sentiment, not in spite of it.

“Democrats are really trying to forge into the wind, a really stiff wind,” said Erich Pratt, spokesman for the group Gun Owners of America. “It’s not something that plays well in the heartland of America.”

Pratt argued that background checks wouldn’t stop determined killers from getting their hands on guns and pointed to contrary polling showing that Americans are wary of increased gun restrictions.

A CNN poll released last week found that 49 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, while 50 percent oppose them. Support has fallen 6 points since January, when 55 percent of Americans backed tougher restrictions, the poll found.

Gun control activists, however, insist that the momentum is in their favor, pointing to a host of states that adopted new laws in 2013. A report issued this week by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence found that 21 states took some action on gun control this year, with eight enacting what the report called significant reforms. 

Brady Campaign President Dan Gross acknowledged advocates would prefer strengthened federal statutes over a patchwork of state laws. He said advocates were targeting lawmakers in an effort to pick up the additional votes needed to pass legislation, along the lines of the Manchin-Toomey amendment.

“We are absolutely hopeful in terms of the potential to pass meaningful legislation in 2014,” Gross said.

In lieu of congressional passage, the White House this month claimed progress in each of almost two dozen executive actions announced by the president in January to reduce gun violence.

A federal taskforce, assembled in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting and led by Vice President Biden, identified 23 measures the president could take unilaterally. Among them were steps meant to address the root causes of gun violence, with a focus on mental health issues.

Last month, the administration finalized regulations requiring insurers to treat mental illness and addiction the same as physical illnesses. The measure is intended to ensure better access to treatment for the mentally impaired.

“The fact that less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need is unacceptable,” Biden said Tuesday.

Ultimately, administrative actions were small consolation for proponents of stronger federal laws.

“He did what he could do,” Cummings, the Maryland Democrat, said of the president. “I think to really have any kind of significant impact, we’ve got to have legislation.”