The gun violence prevention movement has won numerous victories in the year since the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even as the media has often been quick to ordain the demise of the push for stronger gun laws that are overwhelmingly favored by the public.
The year following Newtown has seen the advance of gun safety as an issue important to Americans, including a renewed interest in gun safety legislation at the federal and state levels, new evidence that the NRA cannot determine election outcomes even in its home state of Virginia, increased grassroots and monetary pressure on the gun safety issue, and cultural indicators showing a rejection of the NRA's fringe agenda.
Federal Government Responds To Newtown With Comprehensive Gun Violence Prevention Plan
White House Report Calls For Stronger Gun Laws. Following the December 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed 26 lives, President Obama announced on December 19 that Vice President Biden would lead a White House group in creating a plan to combat gun violence. On January 16, the White House released a report with four areas of focus: (1) expanding background checks on gun sales, (2) reauthorizing a ban on assault weapons, (3) improving the safety of children at school and, (4) improving mental health services.
Obama Takes Executive Action On Gun Violence. While some of these goals required congressional action, the Obama administration also issued 23 executive actions to fight gun violence that included improving the existing federal background check system, strengthening the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), ending the de facto prohibition of research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control, and improving school safety and mental health services. On August 29, two more executive actions were announced to keep high-powered weapons out of the hands of prohibited individuals. According to a November report, the Obama administration has "completed or made significant progress" in implementing each of the initial 23 executive actions.
ATF Has First Permanent Director Since 2006. Obama's nominee to head the ATF, B. Todd Jones, became on July 31 the first permanent director of the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws since NRA lobbying made the position subject to Senate confirmation in 2006. Prior to his confirmation, Jones served as acting ATF director in a part time capacity while also serving as the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. Law enforcement officials, including former members of ATF leadership, noted before Jones' confirmation how the NRA-imposed lack of leadership at the agency hurt morale and prevented the ATF from effectively enforcing gun laws.
Once-In-A-Generation Bipartisan Gun Law Still In The Mix. Senate Democrats also proposed a comprehensive bill that sought to expand background checks, crack down on illegal gun trafficking, and improve school safety, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed legislation to ban the future sale of dangerous assault weapons. In the end, the centerpiece gun safety legislation was a compromise between Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Charles Schumer (NY) and Republican Sens. Pat Toomey (PA) and Mark Kirk (IL) that would have expanded background checks to all commercial gun sales and provided states with financial incentives to submit records that indicate when a person is prohibited by federal law from purchasing a gun into the federal background check system. On April 17, the legislation received a majority vote in the Senate but was unable to overcome a filibuster by a coalition of mostly Senate Republicans. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has expressed hope that the measure will be voted on again in 2014. Similar legislation to expand background checks in the House of Representatives currently has 186 bipartisan co-sponsors.
Undetectable Firearms Act On Verge Of Reauthorization. On December 3, the House reauthorized for a 10-year period the expiring Undetectable Firearms Act (UFA) with a voice vote. The legislation prohibits the possession of firearms that lack metal components and thus can evade metal detectors and X-ray machines. The NRA remained tightlipped on the legislation, issuing a statement expressing opposition to expanding the UFA without taking a position on the legislation's reauthorization without changes. The Senate passed the UFA by unanimous consent on December 9.
Major Gun Reform Enacted At The State Level
Nationwide, state legislatures reacted to the Newtown shooting with legislative packages to reduce gun violence. According to a joint report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 21 states enacted stronger gun laws in 2013. New laws include strengthening background checks on gun sales, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and other laws that aim to keep firearms out of the hands of violent individuals. Among the reforms enacted:
- New York: New York became the first state to enact new gun safety laws after Newtown, with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature to "the toughest gun laws in the nation" on January 16. The legislation -- which spurred NRA-backed protests in Albany -- limits firearm magazine size, expands the state's assault weapons ban, and strengthens background checks on gun and ammunition purchases.
- Colorado: Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed three gun safety measures into law on March 20 in spite of Colorado's "Wild West image." Five months before Newtown, Colorado suffered tragedy when a gunman killed 12 and wounded scores more in an Aurora movie theater. The new Colorado laws require background checks on gun sales, limit firearm magazine capacity to 15 rounds of ammunition, and impose a $10 fee on background checks.
- Connecticut: On April 4, Democratic Gov. Dannell Malloy signed into law a comprehensive gun safety package that received bipartisan support in the Connecticut legislature. While the law addresses mental health and school safety, it also contains a number of firearm-related provisions including an expanded ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines:
The major changes in firearm laws pertain to assault weapons, handguns (pistols and revolvers), long guns (rifles and shotguns), and large capacity magazines (LCM). The bill, among other things, expands the ban on assault weapons, bans the sale or purchase of LCMs that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, mandates the establishment of a deadly weapon offender registry, bans the sale of armor-piercing bullets, adds two members to the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, expands the circumstances in which mental health history disqualifies a person for gun permits or other gun credentials, requires anyone buying ammunition to have an ammunition certificate or other gun credential, and appropriates $ 1 million to the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) for FY 14 to fund the statewide firearms trafficking task force.
- Maryland: Announcing that he hoped gun safety legislation "will substantially lower gun deaths" in Maryland, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law on May 16 legislation that bans assault weapons and high capacity magazines, expands limitations on firearm ownership for individuals with serious mental health conditions, and requires handgun purchasers to obtain a license.*
- New Jersey: While vetoing some gun safety measures passed by the New Jersey legislature, on August 8 Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed into law 10 measures that include prohibiting the purchase of firearms by individuals on terrorism watch lists and increasing criminal sanctions for gun crimes. Commenting on the legislative package, Christie stated, "These common-sense measures will both strengthen New Jersey's already tough gun laws and upgrade penalties for those who commit gun crimes and violate gun trafficking laws." On September 20, Christie enacted additional anti-gun trafficking legislation into law.
- California: Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed 11 bills into law on October 11 -- while vetoing others -- that include closing a loophole California's assault weapons ban, expanding gun safety certification requirements beyond handguns, and expanding the prohibition on gun ownership by dangerous individuals. Brown also enacted legislation that bans the use of lead ammunition in hunting, following advocacy from environmentalists who noted that ingestion of lead ammunition was killing endangered wildlife.
Virginia Governor And Attorney General Run On Gun Safety Platform And Win
Terry McAuliffe Challenges The NRA And Is Elected Governor. For the first time since the Nixon presidency, Virginia voters elected a governor of the same political party as the sitting president with the election of Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe on November 5. Democrats also won races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Contrary to "purple state" conventional wisdom, McAuliffe featured his support for stronger gun laws prominently in his campaign.
As The Washington Post noted in a November 1 article, "After months of inattention, Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) have drawn the polarizing issue of guns into the spotlight of the Virginia governor's race. For once, a Democrat is talking tough about gun control, as if daring the National Rifle Association to take him on. And gun-rights advocates are all too happy to take him up on the challenge."
Indeed, gun policy became a flashpoint during the final debate between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli on October 24 at Virginia Tech University, the site of a 2007 mass shooting that claimed 32 lives. While Cuccinelli bragged about his "A" rating from the NRA and highlighted McAuliffe's "F" rating, McAuliffe responded by saying, "I don't care what grade I got from the NRA" and touted his support for expanded background checks on gun sales.
Both the governor and attorney general races attracted outside spending from the NRA as well as gun violence prevention organizations. According to press reports, the NRA spent "upwards of $500,000" for Cuccinelli and an additional $500,000 trying to defeat Democratic attorney general candidate Mark Herring. Independence USA, a PAC that gives money to candidates who support stronger gun laws, spent more than $1.7 million supporting McAuliffe in the governor's race. Americans for Responsible Solutions, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' gun violence prevention group, also spent money to defeat Cuccinelli and launched the website www.KenOnGuns.com which highlighted Cuccinelli's "extreme views" on the gun issue.
Attorney General's Campaign Manager Credits Stand On Gun Safety For Victory. On December 1, Herring campaign manager Kevin O'Holleran published an op-ed in The Washington Post suggesting that Herring's and Republican opponent Mark Obenshain's views on guns were critical to Herring's narrow apparent victory. Noting that "[o]ne of the things I heard most frequently was that we should soft-pedal [Herring's] strong record and advocacy for sensible gun legislation," O'Holleran said the campaign instead ran on Herring's "strong record and advocacy for sensible gun legislation," and hammered Obenshain's support for "irresponsible proposals" including "allowing guns in bars and restaurants where alcohol is served."
Election results in Virginia demonstrated the latest debunking of a media myth that the NRA can use guns to determine the outcomes of elections at will. This myth persisted in spite of the NRA's disastrously ineffective spending on the 2012 federal elections.
New Organizations Energize Gun Safety Movement
The Newtown shootings and the subsequent debate over gun laws mobilized national gun violence prevention groups such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Violence Policy Center, but also saw the formation of several powerful new organizations.
Americans For Responsible Solutions. In a January 8 op-ed for USA Today, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- who was wounded during a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona -- and her husband, Gulf War veteran, and former astronaut Mark Kelly announced the formation of Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS). The op-ed called for "responsible changes in our laws to require responsible gun ownership and reduce gun violence" and challenged the gun lobby's influence on Congress:
Until now, the gun lobby's political contributions, advertising and lobbying have dwarfed spending from anti-gun violence groups. No longer. With Americans for Responsible Solutions engaging millions of people about ways to reduce gun violence and funding political activity nationwide, legislators will no longer have reason to fear the gun lobby.
On the federal level, ARS backed compromise legislation to expand background checks on gun sales. On January 30, Giffords appeared before Congress and asked her former colleagues to "be bold" in addressing gun violence while forcefully stating, "Too many children are dying." Giffords' appearance and a subsequent New York Times op-ed made her the target of vitriolic criticism from conservative media. ARS, which has raised more than $11 million, has said its goal is to spend $19 million on the 2014 elections, the same amount of money spent by the NRA on the 2012 elections. Independence USA, a PAC founded by MAIG co-chair Michael Bloomberg, has also spent millions of dollars on federal and state elections in the past year and is expected to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms.
Newtown Families. Joining Giffords in lobbying Congress for stronger gun laws were parents of children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other Newtown residents. Sandy Hook Promise, which represented some Newtown families, lobbied President Obama as well as members of Congress to push for stronger background checks on gun sales. For their efforts, like Giffords, Newtown families were insultingly derided by conservative media as "props" of the Obama administration.
Moms Demand Action. Another post-Newtown grassroots initiative, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, almost immediately achieved recognition on the national stage with more than 125,000 members and chapters in all 50 states. The organization -- which is designed to create grassroots pressure an the state and federal levels and was involved in lobbying for the Senate background check bill -- made national news again in November when heavily armed gun activists descended on a meeting of four members of the Texas chapter. Most recently, an ad created with MAIG to air surrounding the one-year Newtown anniversary has made waves for its call for Americans to speak out about gun violence.
Behind the scenes, Moms Demand Action, MAIG, the Brady Campaign, and other gun violence prevention groups continue to attend a regular Gun Violence Table meeting with White House and congressional staff to develop a long-term gun violence prevention agenda.
Mainstream America Rejects The NRA's Cultural Values
Scorn For NRA's "Gun Nut." The NRA faced immediate scorn and ridicule for its first public comments after Newtown that made clear the gun rights organization was unwilling to soften its absolutist stance against nearly any regulation of firearms. Reacting to a speech by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at a December 21 question-free "press conference" where LaPierre claimed the solution to school violence was placing more guns in schools, even conservative News Corp.-owned New York Post's cover mocked LaPierre as a "gun nut" because of his "bizarre rant over Newtown."
The Discovery Channel Cancels American Guns. Three days after Newtown, on December 17, The Discovery Channel announced that it was canceling its series American Guns which chronicled a family's gun business. After a torrent of negative comments about the show's glorification of firearms on Facebook, Discovery announced that the show would not return for a third season, despite a strong ratings showing during its second season.
Discovery Also Says Ted Nugent Will No Longer Appear In Programming. On December 18, Raw Story reported that Discovery would also not re-air an October 2012 special -- Ted Nugent's Gun Country -- which featured NRA board member Ted Nugent. Nugent previously claimed that Discovery hoped to turn his special into a series. Citing poor ratings and the Newtown shootings, a Discovery spokesperson stated that Nugent would not appear on the channel "in any form or fashion." (In September, National Geographic Channel announced the canceling of an episode of Doomsday Preppers that was to feature firearms training company CEO James Yeager, who achieved internet infamy in January for a YouTube rant where he threatened to "start killing people" over federal action on gun violence.)
NRA Sponsorship Of NASCAR Causes Controversy, New NASCAR Rules. In March, the NRA created controversy after announcing that it had entered into a sponsorship deal with Texas Motor Speedway to ordain an April NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race the NRA 500. NASCAR -- which had previously donated money to Newtown charities and fielded a Sandy Hook School Support Fund car at the Daytona 500 in February -- declined to intervene in Texas Motor Speedway's deal. The sponsorship drew condemnation from Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy who asked NASCAR to intercede and urged Fox Sports not to broadcast the event. The NRA 500, which featured a gun-themed winner celebration, was marred by the gun suicide of an infield spectator during the event. Following the race, NASCAR said it would take a more active role in approving sponsorship deals with spokesperson David Higdon stating, "this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward." On November 25, NASCAR announced new guidelines that allow it to void track sponsorship deals "if such prospective entitlement sponsor's brand has been tarnished by, controversy, crisis or circumstance such that its association with the event would damage the NASCAR brand or the image of the sport." Texas Motor Speedway officials also announced that the NRA would not sponsor a race at its track next year.
Starbucks Asks Patrons Not To Bring Firearms Into Stores. After more than three years of pressure, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz announced on September 17 "a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas." In 2010, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Credo Action launched a petition in protest of Starbucks' policy to allow the open carrying of firearms in its stores so long as local law was not violated. After Starbucks expressed unwillingness to change its policy after a 2012 Valentine's Day boycott organized by National Gun Victims Action Council, gun advocates began promoting Starbucks appreciation days. At the time, one gun blogger warned that Starbucks was unlikely to appreciate an association of its brand with firearms. Gun advocates were further emboldened after Moms Demand Action began promoting "Skip Starbucks Sundays" in protest of the coffee chain's gun policy. A particularly ugly incident occurred on August 9 when activists -- some of whom were armed -- attempted to hold a "Starbucks Appreciation Day" at a store in Newtown, Connecticut. The store responded to the arrival of activists by closing for the day. Indeed, in his announcement, Schultz accused gun activists using appreciation days to "disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of 'open carry'" and added, "To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores."
NRA-Sponsored Hunting Show Canceled Following Elephant Shooting Controversy. An NRA-sponsored hunting show that aired on NBC Sports caused controversy after the September 22 episode of Under Wild Skies showed host Tony Makris -- an employee of the NRA's marketing firm -- killing an elephant by shooting it in the face. Opponents of elephant hunting and the gratuitous nature of the episode started two petitions calling for the show's cancellation, which garnered a combined 200,000 signatures. Makris made things worse on September 26 when he appeared on an NRA News show to compare critics of his hunt to Hitler and suggest they were practicing "animal racism" by affording elephants special consideration over other animals. On September 28, NBC Sports canceled the show, calling Makris' comments "outrageous and unacceptable." On October 7, an NBC Sports spokesperson told Media Matters that it would not sponsor the nation's largest gun trade show, the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in 2014 "because it does not make business sense for us at this time." NBC Sports had sponsored the SHOT Show for years and the announcement of its sponsorship of the 2013 show caused controversy weeks after NBC Sports host Bob Costas criticized what he termed the nation's dangerous "gun culture."
NFL Rejects Assault Weapon Manufacturer's Super Bowl Ad. In December it was reported that that the NFL had rejected a Super Bowl ad by assault weapon manufacturer Daniel Defense, to the chagrin of conservative media and the NRA. Citing a policy that prohibits ads for "[f]irearms, ammunition or other weapons" the NFL wrote to Daniel Defense, "Unfortunately, we cannot accept your commercial in football/Super Bowl spots due to the rules the NFL itself has set into place for your company's category." The ad itself did not feature the use of firearms, but it concluded with a rendering of the Daniel Defense logo which features its primary product, a military-style DDM4 rifle.
Photo by Bill Morrow
* This language has been updated for clarity.