One of the phrases repeated often by advocates of stricter gun laws since the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre has been: "If not now, when?"
That rhetorical question became a literal one Wednesday when a federal gun-control bill crashed and burned in the U.S. Senate after months of elevated hopes by Democrats, based on a national surge of emotion at the murders of 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
President Obama and congressional allies, including Connecticut's two U.S. senators, vowed in defeat to find ways to reverse Wednesday's "shameful" action in Washington.
In that moment, for these advocates, the burning cause born of tragedy became something else: a political issue requiring patient strategy over time more than passion in the immediate aftermath.
But if they couldn't transform Newtown's pain into passage of even a watered-down set of restrictions — expanded background checks, but not the "universal" checks they'd wanted — then what can they do differently as time goes on?
Answers from gun-control proponents included:
— Never underestimate the strength of millions of gun owners and their lobbying groups. Newly elected Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said repeatedly that the National Rifle Association had turned into "Washington's paper tiger." What happened in the Senate hurt advocates more than any paper cut. "It definitely shows that the NRA is a very powerful lobby," said Ron Pinciaro, director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence — who usually agrees with Murphy.
— Build on the public support and awareness that Newtown brought. Pinciaro said his group signed up an additional 27,000 people on its website above its pre-Dec. 14 level of 8,000. That increased volunteer efforts and fundraising, assisting in the effort to get the Connecticut legislature to pass one of the nation's strongest gun-control bills. The Connecticut law includes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which never even made it into the federal measure blocked in the Senate.
— Understand that passing significant gun-control laws, if it ever happens, will take years. Former Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffett compared the anticipated fight to a "dance marathon," and said it will require fundamental change in a society where gun ownership is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Moffett recommended "taking names" of those who voted against gun control and using those votes against them in coming election campaigns to gradually change the makeup of Congress.
— Realize why 90 percent public support in a poll doesn't translate into legislative action. Although polls showed more than 90 percent of Americans supported the modest gun-control bill that came up in the Senate on Wednesday, majority Democrats failed to muster the 60 votes needed to quell a Republican filibuster.
A day after the Senate vote, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat who still wants to introduce a similar background-check bill in the House, said at a Washington press briefing that he had been trying to convince a moderate Republican House colleague from his home state to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill, to give it a bipartisan appeal. The Republican said he would vote for it but wouldn't co-sponsor it.
Thompson said he pointed out that 93 percent of the Republican's constituents favored the expanded background checks the bill would bring. He said the Republican congressman replied that he was aware of that, and "I read the poll — but not one of 'em has called me."
In other words, Thompson said, public opinion isn't worth much if it doesn't involve public participation. "It's time to get involved, and it's time to pick up the phone," he said.
Obama also stressed the need for citizen participation in an angry speech he gave outside the White House Wednesday evening after the Senate action. Surrounded by family members of Newtown massacre victims, he said: "If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.
"To all the people who supported this legislation — law enforcement and responsible gun owners, Democrats and Republicans, urban moms, rural hunters, whoever you are — you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed, and that if they don't act this time, you will remember come election time. ...
"So, to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you've got to send the right people to Washington. And that requires strength, and it requires persistence."
Up Next: The House
Even with the issue dead in the Senate, members of Connecticut's U.S. House delegation weren't ready to give up at week's end.
U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, said in a Courant interview that he thought a provision identical to the one that failed in the Senate could pass the Republican-controlled House, in the form of either a bill or an amendment — if it comes to a vote. He plans to introduce one, and he said that while the bill does not yet have a bipartisan co-sponsor he was hopeful he could find one, mentioning some conservative Republicans, including Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and 2010 Republican vice-presidential nominee, as open to the idea of gun control.
Larson said introducing such a bill in the House was one of the "other avenues" to achieve gun control after its crash in the Senate — but he also criticized the filibuster as most in need of reform. He said the bill would have passed a simple majority vote in the Senate, where it got 54 votes, but it needed 60 to invoke "cloture" and shut down a Republican filibuster.
"This thing usually goes away. They don't stay focused, they don't stay after it," said Larson.
This time, Larson said, is different. "You've got a president with a bully pulpit, you've got a mid-term election; there is going to be an awful lot of heat," he said.
Larson also said he was encouraged by the president's Wednesday speech, which he said demonstrated Obama's determination and commitment — an approach different from what members of his party have come to expect.
"If there's one thing you can say about the president it's that he's persistent ... sometimes agonizingly so," Larson said, speaking of instances in which Obama has courted members on the opposite aisle just to get something done.
"Usually, no matter what, you rarely see this president angry, no matter what the circumstance is. Sometimes he'll reflect disappointment but most of the time he'll say well we've got to sit back down together," Larson said.
On the gun issue, however, Larson said: "It is permanently seared in his presidency and DNA and he will not let go."
Some of the most vocal lobbyists said they haven't even figured out what the next step is for the gun-control movement.
Sandy Hook Promise, the group that sent families to Washington to pressure legislators in the lead-up to the vote, declined to comment. A spokesman said that they need to "regroup" and that while they would be taking steps going forward, "We need to take some time to figure out what the next steps are."
Blumenthal spoke on the Senate floor Thursday, criticizing his colleagues for their failure to pass a background check expansion — a provision many supporters viewed as "common ground" early in the process. Blumenthal assured senators that the "Connecticut Effect" — a term coined by the NRA to describe a rise in support for gun control that would soon diminish — would be long-lasting.
"Do not underestimate the power of the Newtown families. They will help to hold accountable and answerable to the people of America the actions that were taken here, the votes that were cast. Votes have consequences just as elections do, and the people of America will remember," Blumenthal said.
"Our job now is to raise awareness, spread the rage that we feel, raise that rage and organize and enable and empower citizens to be heard and heeded by this body."
Several groups, some created in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, have vowed to do the same. One, a national organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, models itself after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a group that started as a grass-roots movement and over time built enough support to change laws.
"I think one thing that MADD did so well is they helped to change the culture or the perception. When MADD started out, someone used to nod their head … say oh, someone's driving tipsy," said Deborah Lewis of West Hartford, who is head of the Central Connecticut chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Like MADD, Lewis said: "We're educating and alerting people on gun violence. The gun lobby has been so powerful and preying on people's fears."
Lewis said that after the vote Wednesday, her organization saw a spike in membership, an increase in donations and record traffic on its website.
Not everyone sees MADD's success as a perfect analogy to the gun-control movement. Pinciaro said selling gun control presents challenges that opponents of drunken driving didn't face — perhaps most significantly millions of gun owners who say they are law-abiding and have the Second Amendment on their side.
One other sobering note for gun control supporters was the harsh reminder they received last week — that to compete with the powerful pro-gun lobby, money is necessary.
David Stowe, co-chair of Newtown Action Alliance, said the goal now is to make voting against gun control into something feared as much as a low NRA rating. He and others are eyeing the 2014 election cycle.
"The NRA … they've always had the money, which is now counterbalanced," said Stowe.
He cited Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.
"Look at what happened in Chicago," said Stowe, pointing to a primary election in which a pro-gun candidate bowed out after being targeted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Super PAC. "That money was never there before; it's there now," said Stowe, adding that "a lot of these politicians are not used to having ads" opposing those of the NRA.
"We're certainly working on looking at different races to target, different groups to coordinate with, fundraising for different campaigns coming up," Stowe said.
Stowe also said he thought Wednesday's vote could help his cause.
"In reality, what happened yesterday might work out best in the long run. … All it proved to do is energize millions and millions of people who are really angry," Stowe said Thursday.
Earlier that day, he and other members of Newtown Action Alliance had spoken with Vice President Joe Biden on a conference call. He said Biden told them that some of the senators said they wanted to vote for the measure but "they just couldn't do it for political reasons."
A Facebook post quoted Biden as saying that the senators told him: "Joe, don't ask me to walk the political plank. ... I can vote for immigration or guns, I can't do both. My constituents back home will forgive me for voting on one, but not both."
That view enrages Newtown activists and the lawmakers who have grown close to them since Dec. 14. One of them, Murphy, worried after Wednesday's Senate defeat about what it may take, realistically, to bring about meaningful gun reform.
There's going to be another massacre," he said. "These mass shootings are not decreasing in frequency; they're increasing in frequency."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun