There is pattern to these things: A deranged individual goes on a shooting spree and America mourns the loss of innocents. Some voices raise the subject of gun control; others say “this is not the time” for such discussions. And then national attention moves on. (For example, a federal assault weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994 was allowed to expire under the Bush administration.) Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association continues to raise money, lobby, and make massive campaign contributions to candidates who receive high grades on its voting report cards. The NRA spent $24 million in the last election cycle — more than 4,000 times the amount spent by the leading gun control advocacy group, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Could this time be different? Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was the bombing of the USS Cole, and before that, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. But it took the scale of the 9/11 devastation to transform the nation’s view of the terrorist threat and to respond with action.
Could the deaths of 20 children be sparking a similar change of consciousness?
There are signs that this might be the case. But it will be months before we can say for sure.
Here are some indications that this time, it’s different:
— A growing number of pro-gun congressional Democrats are saying they would not support more restrictions on weapons; Said West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, whose pro-gun positions had earned him an “A” rating from the NRA, said:
“Who would have ever thought, in America, or anywhere in the world, that children would be slaughtered? You know, that–it’s changed me.” He called for a “dialogue that would bring a total change. And I mean a total change.”
— The pro-gun rights majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, has said “all options should be on the table” to prevent future tragedies;
— A visibly shaken President Obama, who wiped away tear after tear when speaking about the dead children, has tasked his cabinet to come up with ways to respond to the killings in an effort to be led by vice president Joe Biden;
— Investors are dropping gun companies ;
“It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” said a press release announcing that Cerberus, a private equity firm would sell the maker of Bushmaster, the rifle that was used by the Newtown gunman.
— Rupert Murchoch, the owner of Fox News, the stalwartly conservative television network, has called for the U.S. to follow the example of his native Australia, which cracked down on gun ownership after a mass killing there. He said on Twitter:
Nice words from POTUS on shooting tragedy, but how about some bold leadership action?
Terrible news today. When will politicians find courage to ban automatic weapons? As in Oz after similar tragedy.
— Fox News star anchor Megyn Kelly, teared up and compared the shootings to 9/11 in their impact on the national psyche and said:
“This is one of those moments, it’s like, it’s like what the country felt after 9/11 where regardless of your politics you feel first an American, you feel first a parent, and you think, it doesn’t matter what your party affiliation is.”
“We have to work together to be honest about what led to this,” she said. “And how to stop it from happening again. Without any quick fixes, without any quick judgments, but to really look at it and try to figure it out.”
But here are a few of the obstacles:
— No congressional Republican has yet come forward to say he or she would support more restriction on weapons or high-capacity ammunition — and Republicans control the House of Representatives;
— The president seems to think he has time to come out with proposals and that support will be there in the coming months; he may be wrong;
— Despite Murdoch’s tweets, top executives at Fox News, who retain editorial control of the network, have reportedly banned discussion of gun control;
— Gerrymandering of congressional seats means more and more seats are “safe” Democratic of Republican. This means the main obstacle to obtaining office is not the general election, but winning the party primary. For Republicans, this often means winning the endorsement of NRA among other conservative groups.
— The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark 2008 case of D.C. v. Heller, ruled that the Second Amendment protection of a “right to bear arms” extended to individuals in their homes, unconnected with service in a militia. The ruling struck down a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C., and ruled unconstitutional the district’s regulations that required all firearms to be kept “unloaded and disassembed or bound by a trigger lock.” The top court may also decided to consider a case asking whether the Second Amendment also confers a right to be armed in public.