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Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed
On a Friday morning in December 2012, a gunman burst through the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., committing one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history that left 20 children and six teachers and staff dead.
The Dec. 14 attack shocked the nation. At the White House, President Obama fought back tears; he said his visit to the school a few days later was the only time he had ever seen Secret Service members cry.
After years of increasingly violent and deadly mass shootings, Sandy Hook had a more profound effect.
For decades, gun control was the third rail of American politics, one that went unchallenged even as cities like Jonesboro, Ark., Columbine, Colo., and Killeen, Texas, became synonymous with mass shootings. Politicians feared the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and some of the most ferocious opposition to gun control measures came from Democrats who represented rural communities.
But the devastating legacy of Sandy Hook - and the subsequent attacks on communities from Parkland, Fla., to San Bernardino, Calif., from urban Washington to rural Texas, from a synagogue in Pittsburgh to a nightclub in Orlando, Fla. - has changed the politics of gun control.
Today, advocates say they have turned the tables.
"There has been a seismic shift in American politics," said Shannon Watts, who founded the group Moms Demand Action the day after the Sandy Hook shooting. "We have fought this fight in state houses and in boardrooms, and we've won."
In the years since Sandy Hook, 21 state legislatures have expanded background check requirements on various types of gun sales. Seventeen states, mostly those controlled by Democrats, have passed red flag laws that allow law enforcement to take guns away from someone who may pose a danger to themselves or others. And 28 states have enacted laws requiring those convicted of domestic abuse to give up their firearms.
The momentum is not solely on the side of gun control advocates. Several states have passed measures expanding the right to carry concealed firearms, even without a permit, and others are moving to allow firearms on school grounds as part of a response to mass shootings. In the last seven years, the NRA counts more than 460 pro-gun measures that have passed state legislatures.
But the debate over guns is no longer one-sided. Backing stricter gun laws, once a sure path to defeat in rural and suburban communities, has become a winning issue - or at least a neutral issue - for some candidates.
Several Democrats who won the most competitive state legislative races in Virginia last month campaigned on a promise to pass stricter controls after the Republican-controlled legislature failed to act in the wake of a mass shooting at Virginia Beach. Some Republicans who had been endorsed by the NRA backed away from the group in key suburban districts.
The political shift on guns has come as the two parties have identified gun control as a partisan issue. Democrats have unified around stricter controls: When Congress passed the 1994 assault weapons ban, 77 Democrats voted against the measure. But when the Democratic House voted this year to expand background checks, only two Democrats - Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Collin Peterson (Minn.) - voted no.
Conversely, Republicans are now more uniformly opposed to gun control bills. Thirty-eight Republicans voted to ban assault weapons in 1994; just eight voted for this year's background check bill.
A part of the partisan realignment comes as a new faction of gun control and gun safety groups levels the financial playing field after years in which the NRA and gun manufacturers dumped tens of millions into political campaign ads. Now, groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, funded by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and Giffords, headed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), herself the victim of a mass shooting, have become big-money donors in key races across the country.
Bloomberg has made his support for gun control groups a key pillar in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Giffords's husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is running for Senate against Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in a state where support for the NRA was once virtually a requirement to run for office.
In 2018, gun control groups spent more than the NRA on campaigns and elections for the first time in recent memory. The following year, those groups outspent the NRA by a huge margin in Virginia, home of the NRA's headquarters.
"The biggest change in gun politics over the last seven years has been Bloomberg's money. With his billions, he's been trying to shift the debate from common-sense solutions that enhance public safety by protecting communities, and punishing criminals to radical gun control policies like registration, confiscation and the elimination of rights - severe actions that only affect law-abiding Americans," said Lars Dalseide, an NRA spokesman.
Public opinion surveys show dramatically shifting attitudes over time. A Gallup poll conducted in October found 64 percent of Americans want laws covering the sale of firearms to be more strict, the third straight year support for stricter rules has topped 60 percent.
While proposals like requiring background checks on gun sales or allowing police to take weapons away from a potentially dangerous person have stalled, other policies are beginning to gain support.
A month after the Sandy Hook attack, 54 percent of Americans said they supported banning assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons, according to a Fox News poll conducted at the time. A Fox News poll conducted earlier this year showed 67 percent of respondents favored a ban on assault weapons - including 61 percent of rural white Americans, and 53 percent of those who said their household had a gun in it.
At the same time, the NRA is much less popular than it had been in the past. The Fox poll from 2013 found 56 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the group; today, just 42 percent see the NRA favorably, and 47 percent see it unfavorably.
Even as state legislatures, including some run by Republicans, move to embrace new gun safety measures, Congress has remained unmoved. The Republican-controlled Senate has become a legislative morass where gun legislation stalls, both in the wake of Sandy Hook and after other mass shootings. The Trump administration issued an order banning bump stocks, but President Trump's pledge to address mass shootings has yet to materialize.
"Congress is where it ends, not where it begins," said Watts of Moms Demand Action. "You have to build momentum in statehouses and boardrooms that point the president and Congress in the right direction."