NEWTOWN, Conn. — The mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six school workers at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago was a tragedy so heinous that it would, many thought, fuel a broad national campaign to make guns more difficult to buy and use.
President Obama, in a speech in this bucolic town, made it his personal mission: “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”
Much of the politics, in the end, turned against him. Today, it is easier, not harder, to carry a gun in many parts of the nation than it was before the Newtown massacre last Dec. 14.
More than 1,500 bills were filed in state legislatures amid a chorus of grieving voices from shattered families. And while several reliably blue states enacted major reforms, far more states, more than two dozen, passed laws that weakened gun control. Many expanded the number of places where concealed weapons are permitted.
The federal effort, championed by Obama, failed in April in the face of Senate opposition to expanded background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and limits on ammunition magazines. In Colorado, two state senators were recalled by voters for supporting tougher gun restrictions in the wake of horrific killings at a movie theater in Aurora. A third state senator resigned rather than face a recall.
‘We’re never going to go back to the way life was before.’
“After so many times, you just begin to think, ‘I hope this is it, but it probably won’t be,’ ” said Greg Gibson, a Gloucester man whose son Galen was shot and killed in 1992 at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington.
“There’s always this wringing of hands, and cries of why, and pledges to get it right, and it all just dissipates,” he said.
Although gun-rights activists lament the loss of life at Newtown, the outpouring of calls for stricter laws spurred the National Rifle Association and others to re-energize their efforts to prevent what they consider a loss of civil rights. In many states, they succeeded.
“Why would it be logical to restrict access to lawful items by millions of people who own them because of the acts of a couple of deranged individuals?” asked Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League in Massachusetts.
On Wednesday, an Associated Press-GfK poll showed that support for stricter gun control has dropped nationwide, from 58 percent in January to 52 percent this month. Backing for more lenient laws increased to 15 percent, from 5 percent earlier in the year.
The poll numbers dropped even as a push for tougher laws intensified. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national organization that provides legal expertise for gun control, the number of bills filed in January and February to strengthen firearms restrictions increased 231 percent compared with a year before. At the same time, bills filed by gun-rights groups increased by 67 percent.
From these proposals, a Law Center scorecard shows that 18 states weakened their gun restrictions in 2013, 11 states and the District of Columbia strengthened them, and 10 states passed a combination. Both sides in the gun debate, however, manage to find hopeful signs in that tally.
Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center, said that gun-control activists seized the national initiative with major gains in states such as California, Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and New Jersey.
Those gains included assault weapon bans, adding or bolstering curbs on large-capacity magazines, and requiring background checks for private sales of firearms, according to the Law Center, which is based in San Francisco.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers in the House have been told by Speaker Robert DeLeo to expect a gun-control package in January, said Representative David Linsky, a Natick Democrat who is pushing about two-dozen changes to tighten state regulations.
Before that debate begins, an outside task force appointed by DeLeo to examine the state’s laws, already some of the toughest in the nation, should deliver recommendations by Christmas, Linsky said.
Many Republican-led states, however, have gone the other way, with incremental changes that include the right to carry concealed weapons in churches and schools. And major changes favoring gun-rights activists have occurred even in Democrat-controlled Illinois, which became the 50th state to allow concealed weapons.
Wallace, of the Gun Owners’ Action League, believes that gun-rights activists are in a stronger position since the Newtown tragedy.
“We’ve had an opportunity to get out there to these forums and debates and talk about what we already face as gun owners,” Wallace said. “For the most part, I think the general public gets it.”
The public understands, he continued, the reasons that law-abiding gun owners are fiercely opposed to having background checks expanded to private sales, and having limits placed on ammunition magazines.
In Newtown, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fired more than 150 rounds from his mother’s semiautomatic rifle, which used 30-round magazines, according to authorities. Two handguns also were discovered near his body. At Aurora, James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others in July 2012 with a 12-gauge shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round magazine, and a .40-caliber handgun.
Still, Wallace said, seeking to limit the size of magazines is an “insane” abridgment of individual rights. The long-term impact of Newtown, he added, will be “a massive digging into the why, and sometimes the why is difficult to come up with.”
To Wallace, more attention needs to be placed on efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
But to John Morse, the Colorado Senate president who lost his seat in a September recall, the “common-sense” restrictions he helped make state law, such as background checks for private sales and magazine limits, must be part of the response.
“It just appalls me that we’re going to commemorate the anniversary this Saturday and have done nothing except recall a couple of state senators in Colorado.”
John Rosenthal, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, said he is disheartened by what he sees as a tepid legislative response to Newtown.
“There has been no progress. If anything, there has been a backward slide and even less courage among the spineless majority of Congress,” said Rosenthal, whose group maintains the gun-control billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike near Fenway Park.
The recall election in Colorado attracted millions of dollars from outside groups, including contributions from Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, who advocates strict gun control, and the National Rifle Association. Despite his election in a state in which a majority of voters support background checks, Morse said, the NRA and his opponents capitalized on a single-minded message that raised fears about gun rights.
Morse, who represented a district that included part of Colorado Springs, said he does not regret his stance.
“I said at the end of March that this is the right thing to do, and if it ends up costing me my political career, that’s an incredibly small price to pay compared with what families pay every day,” Morse said.
Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said he believes the public will trend toward Morse’s thinking. After last year’s mass shootings, Glaze said, Americans “are better educated, more concerned about, and more likely to vote on gun issues than they were a year ago.”
The group, which now has more than 1,000 mayors as members, was formed by Bloomberg and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
In Newtown, the community is not focused on gun control but rather on an anniversary that is reopening raw wounds.
“Everybody’s remembering,” said Chrissy Lopez, 54, who works in a store not far from where the now-razed elementary school had stood. “It’s like it’s happening all over again.”
The Rev. Matthew Crebbin, senior pastor at the Newtown Congregational Church, has helped tend those wounds for a year. Although “Newtown is broken,” he said, light has been able to find its way through the cracks.
Crebbin said he has seen many acts of kindness since the massacre, and more neighbor-to-neighbor caring in this wooded town of 28,000 people near the New York border.
However, he added, the pall from the shooting will linger far into the future. “We’re never going to go back to the way life was before,” Crebbin said. “There’s no way you go through an experience like this and not be affected or deeply altered.”
Although the gun debate is muted here, the pastor conceded that the issue is relevant to what occurred in Newtown.
“I’m focused on the positive, but certainly part of that is how do we alter a challenging reality — that two Newtowns happen every week in this country,” Crebbin said of the deaths of children by gunfire.
“We need to be prepared that this is going to be a long haul. . . . I don’t even want to imagine that it will need more and more of these events,” the pastor said. “I believe that common sense ultimately will prevail.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.