As Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy took to the Senate floor to filibuster in favor of gun control legislation on Wednesday, he cast a light on the shifting strategies of both sides in the debate.
Time was when that debate was national. In 1994 Congress voted to prohibit the sale of certain assault weapons anywhere in the United States. Then, in 2004, Congress voted not to extend that ban and allowed it to expire.
For the past 3 1/2 years, since the mass shooting that killed 26 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., there has been no new national legislation and only two bills that got as far as congressional votes. Four months after Newtown, legislation that would have reinstated the assault weapons ban was defeated, in spite of emotional pleas from victims’ families. And last December there was a vote that would have closed the “terror gap” by keeping people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
Because there is little chance that this Republican Congress will ever approve gun control legislation — or even allow such legislation to come to the floor lest a vote provide a record for gun control advocates to campaign against — the fight has “migrated away from Washington and back out to the states,” says Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Committee of New York, who has been a gun-control advocate since the 1980s.
In that way, the new blueprint of the gun control movement is the fight for gay marriage, which was also taken to the states after disappointment in Congress. “My daughter thinks marriage equality happened overnight,” says Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the Newtown killings. The group has since merged with Everytown for Gun Safety, and together they have 3.5 million members. “It took years of activism on the ground, incremental change, never letting up, drip-drips on a rock.”
So far, the strategy has been far more successful in beating back laws that would expand gun rights than in promoting laws that would restrict those rights, but it’s a start, advocates say. In the first months of this year alone, legislation that would have allowed guns on college campuses was approved in just one state and defeated in 16 others. Bills that would have allowed guns in K-12 schools were defeated in 12 states, though legislation is pending in two states. Laws allowing concealed carry without a permit were also defeated in 13 states, passed in three, and pending in six. And not a single state has passed new Stand Your Ground legislation since Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012; introduced in six states this year, it was defeated in five and passed in just one, Missouri, where Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has said he is still deciding whether to veto it.
The goal, advocates agree, is to lay a foundation and create a critical mass that will eventually cause Congress to feel pressure to act. “This is not an unknown strategy by any means,” Aborn says. “The more states you can get to embrace the kind of change you’re supporting, the better your chances in Washington.”
More states help, yes. But, in a grim irony, so do more shootings. Each high-profile massacre creates an increase in calls for gun safety. The elusive trick, says Gloria Pan, the national campaign director for gun safety at Moms Rising, is to harness that into action. “With every shooting there is more momentum,” she says, “but not quite enough.”
In the past few days, however, advocates wonder whether now might be the tipping point they have been waiting for. In their corner is the fact that the 49 killed and 53 wounded in Orlando was the worst mass shooting ever in the United States. Also, closing the terror gap resonates with the part of the electorate that has become increasingly fearful of terrorism. And most surprisingly, there is an unexpected ally in Donald Trump, who says he plans to urge the National Rifle Association, which enthusiastically endorsed him last month, to back restrictions on gun sales to suspected terrorists.
Those who have long fought for such legislation say they are not getting their hopes up. Even if Murphy succeeds in forcing a vote on his amendments to a spending bill, thereby requiring universal background checks for gun purchases and preventing firearms sales to suspected terrorists, gun control advocates doubt that this current Congress would actually pass such a measure.
Still, they say, the very ability to force a vote would be a victory. “It would provide a documented record of where senators stand,” says Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance. “They don’t want a record. We want them to have one.”
As Murphy keeps speaking, gun control advocates are trying to temper their optimism. But, Watts says, “I always have hope. After each one of these tragedies, obviously we hope Congress will do something. But this is the same Congress we had after Charleston, after Oregon. Still, one can always hope.”