Sandy Hook Families Try to Revive Gun-Control Debate With Hill Visits

Elahe Izadi
National Journal

The political spotlight may be off the gun-control debate, but advocates aren't showing signs of relenting.

Family members of Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims are in Washington this week to meet with lawmakers to help revive the defeated Manchin-Toomey legislation that would expand background checks and to push a House equivalent. They think there may be a path to make changes to the Senate legislation to satisfy some senators who voted against the measure, according to an adviser to the families.

"The more time that goes by, in some respects, the stronger we're getting, and the more comfortable in our voices and knowing what needs to be done," said Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. "It just strengthens our resolve to continue this."

The meetings coincide with the six-month anniversary of the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Families associated with Sandy Hook Promise met Wednesday with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as well as House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Notably, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., doesn't have a meeting planned with the families.

Jillian Soto, the sister of Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, will speak during a Thursday demonstration taking place at the U.S. Capitol.

Vice President Joe Biden will hold a gun-control forum Tuesday at the White House, the Associated Press reports, the first such event there since the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed to garner 60 votes in April. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent a letter this week to New York's biggest Democratic donors, asking them to not contribute to the Democratic senators who voted against the legislation: Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

But it remains to be seen how much of an impact such efforts will have, given that some of the more-gettable "yes" votes aren't showing signs of budging. Pryor aired an ad in May geared toward gun owners in his state that defended his "no" vote by using the Bloomberg opposition to his advantage: "No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do; I listen to Arkansas," he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Wednesday that the presence of Sandy Hook victims on the Hill this week also hasn't changed his position on gun control—namely that he supports strengthening background checks, but not in the way that Sens. Manchin Toomey proposed earlier this year.

"I continue to meet with those groups. I'm glad they are doing what they are doing," Flake said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "I'm comfortable where I am."

Manchin didn't indicate that the process should start with a brand new bill; rather, he's exploring whether he can make small changes in order to get a few senators to change their votes. And as for efforts such as that of Bloomberg's, while saying he isn't critiquing what's been done, Manchin said he'd like more people playing an "informational and educational, supportive role."

"I need help in getting out to gun regions, such as West Virginia, and all over this country, that actually this gun bill is good for them and asking them to step to the plate and make sure that the wrong people don't get guns," Manchin said. "There's going to be an election in 2014. That's the time when you've exhausted every other avenue, of getting the message out and doing the right thing. Then do what you've got to do then. That's when the real price is going to be paid."

Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said advocacy groups are confident another gun-control vote will come up after the August recess. "In the interim, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, … laying the additional groundwork for that, meeting with people we need to, pressure people on the fence," he said. "I personally feel very good about what I think is a fundamental transformation in our movement."

As the immigration debate has moved to the fore, it's unlikely that the upper chamber has the bandwidth for another major policy debate anytime soon. Still, Newtown families say they will continue to pressure lawmakers until they see gun-control measures enacted.

"We're here for the marathon that this is," said Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, was a Sandy Hook school psychologist who was gunned down. "We really have no choice. I'll spend the rest of my life without my wife."