The Sandy Hook massacre was a milestone in U.S. history. But it’s unlikely, in the end, to be the social and political marker that many had first assumed.The 2012 murder of 26 young children and teachers in their Newtown, Connecticut, classrooms was succeeded by purposeful inaction in Washington. The Senate contemplated a rational, if arguably tangential, effort to require background checks for all gun purchases, a proposal supported by more than 80 percent of Americans.
Then the effort collapsed in cowardice. The House shrank even from a pretense of responsibility. The call and response between governed and governing, the spinal cord of the body politic, was severed.
The National Rifle Association’s triumph was absolute. It had offered no argument against universal background checks. (None exists that can bear public scrutiny.) It merely had demanded obeisance. Congress responded by depositing the tattered remains of legislation on the NRA’s doorstep, like a house pet leaving a gruesome prize for its master.
Many concluded that if a mass slaughter of children could not shock the consciences of legislators, nothing would. Yet instead of defining the end of debate, and the futility of opposing the gun lobby, the Sandy Hook massacre was the slow-burning fuse that led to a national mobilization after another school massacre, in February, in Parkland, Florida.
Ricki Seidman, a strategist who previously advised Sandy Hook Promise, the nonprofit organization formed by parent survivors, said in a telephone interview that Sandy Hook parents established templates that Parkland survivors have used.
First, even in the face of emotional devastation and political abandonment, the parents didn’t retreat. They continued to testify about the impact of gun violence on their lives. Second, they kept their focus on guns and mental health and offered practical, achievable proposals to mitigate gun violence. They weren’t suckered into pursuing diversions — arm teachers! — that the NRA deploys to destroy rational debate. Third, they coordinated with others but maintained control of their own agenda and narratives.
Their tragedy also inspired others, including an Indiana mother, Shannon Watts, who in response to the Sandy Hook shooting dedicated her energy and skills to the gun-safety cause, founding Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The grassroots organization spread quickly to 50 states and now deploys troops in every state capitol. (Moms Demand also gained the support of Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg.)
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Sandy Hook had powerful implications beyond the activist model. The lack of a political response made the NRA appear untouchable, which led the group to become overconfident. One manifestation was the gun lobby’s betrayal of the few Democratic politicians who had done its bidding. The NRA concluded that it didn’t need the likes of Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat who had spent his dignity in service to the group’s demands. It thanked Pryor for voting against background checks by spending heavily to defeat him.
It was a foolish move, prompting every red-state Democrat to privately calculate the price of loyalty to the NRA. It also accelerated the partisan polarization of gun politics.
Polarization has been a boon in red states, where guns everywhere for anyone became the default. But it’s a powerful liability in more populous blue states, and it is likely to have severe consequences for the gun lobby when Democrats next gain unified control of Washington. Underscoring the point, Conor Lamb, the Democrat who just won a special House election in a conservative Pennsylvania district, openly campaigned on his support for universal background checks.
Beyond politics, Sandy Hook exposed a gun culture in the throes of moral bankruptcy. A gun-toting mother had actively encouraged her demented son’s affection for firearms — with apparently little consideration of her responsibilities to her community or society at large. The response to the ensuing calamity illustrated the gun movement’s social compact: Our unrestricted gun rights — indeed our mere convenience as consumers — are worth the sacrifice of your children.
Surely, there is a class and racial component to the success of the Parkland teens, who are largely affluent and white. But the relative affluence of the Sandy Hook families had previously seemed to be confirmation that no amount of privilege could arrest the NRA juggernaut.
With blue states from California to Connecticut adopting stricter gun regulation, and even the gun-happy legislators of Florida joining in last month, that analysis appears defunct. Following in the path of Sandy Hook activists, the exceptionally savvy and, thus far, disciplined teenagers of Parkland are proving that more change is not only possible but likely.
Sandy Hook revealed a level of political dysfunction and cultural depravity that no decent society could allow to stand. Parkland is proving that even with the gun lobby dictating to the White House and Congress, decency isn’t too weak to defend itself.