Gun control advocates lament lack of progress

Families lament lack of progress

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips lost their daughter Jessica Ghawi in the Aurora, Colo. shooting.
Noah Bierman/Globe Staff
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips lost their daughter Jessica Ghawi in the Aurora, Colo. shooting.

WASHINGTON — They introduce one another by the tragedies. He was shot four times at Virginia Tech. Their daughter died watching a movie in Aurora, Colo. His neighbors were killed going to school in Newtown, Conn.

This gathering of dozens of survivors on Tuesday, at a Methodist meeting room across the street from the Capitol’s lawn, had been planned for weeks. It was an opportunity to lobby Congress — yet again — for gun control.

The meetings came, however, hours after another mass shooting Monday at the Washington Navy Yard, leaving 13 dead. It was another moment to mourn, and another reminder that, even after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown seemed to galvanize a president and a nation toward stricter gun control measures, the advocates have not succeeded at the federal level.


“We just looked at each other and said ‘We cannot believe this is happening again,’ ” said Sandy Phillips, 63, who was boarding a plane from San Antonio with her husband, Lonnie, on Monday when they learned of the Navy Yard shootings. “Of course, we can, because we know it’s not going to get better until new laws are passed.”

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The couple lost their daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, in the July 2012 shooting in an Aurora cinema that killed a dozen people and injured 70. They learned about Newtown when they were boarding another plane, to pick up a posthumous degree for their daughter in Colorado. Even they cannot keep track of all the episodes of shocking violence.

“There will be another again, and again, and again until we as a country do something,” Phillips said.

Many gun rights supporters said it is too soon to debate policy, in the aftermath of a tragedy, and disrespectful to those still grieving.

The National Rifle Association, which posted a statement of sympathy for the victims on its website Tuesday, argued after the Newtown shootings that more armed guards would protect innocent people from gun violence. Gun rights activists have also long contended that added limits infringe on constitutional rights without addressing mental illness and other root causes of violence.


Authorities are still investigating the circumstances at the Navy Yard, which is heavily guarded.

The alleged shooter, Aaron Alexis, was reported to have a history of mental health issues and at least one arrest on a firearms-related incident. Media reports have said that he entered the base using valid identification and had with him a shotgun that was legally purchased from a Virginia gun store, and then may have taken a handgun from a base security guard.

Gun control advocates, meanwhile, said the matter is too urgent to pause, and that Tuesday was an opportunity to highlight their point of view.

“Every day that goes by and we don’t accomplish this . . . more people are losing their lives,” said Monte Frank, a Newtown lawyer who mourned the loss of his daughter’s third-grade teacher, a boy around the corner, and a girl down the street, all killed at Sandy Hook.

As Sandy and Lonnie Phillips gathered Tuesday with advocates and prepared for a day of meetings with lawmakers in the Capitol, they were friendly and surprisingly upbeat. They only grew angry as they recalled meeting in their home state months ago with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican, who told them he would not support any of the gun control measures they sought.


Yet like others who joined them Tuesday, they keep coming to Capitol Hill. They knew the indiscriminate killing of 12 people who just happened to be at a Navy Yard cafeteria, followed by the death of the alleged shooter, held powerful symbolism. It occurred about a mile from the source of so much of their frustration, the Capitol.

The Senate itself was locked down Monday, amid citywide uncertainty over whether there were more shooters. The flags were at half staff on Tuesday. Taps played as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid a wreath at the US Navy Memorial. The Capitol Police seemed a bit more attentive.

Yet there lingered the question of whether the Navy Yard killings could actually spur legislation, given the failure to tighten gun controls after the murderous spree on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook, which led to the death of 20 children and six adults. The image of so many innocent children being killed by a lone gunman was supposed to change the national dialogue. President Obama promised that he would push for meaningful changes in gun laws. Others had promised before, but he really meant it, he said.

In April, the Senate voted on a measure to expand background checks required for purchasing guns and to close the so-called gun show loophole, which allows some convicts and others prohibited from owning guns to buy them without a background check. The measure was more modest than many advocates wanted, but more ambitious than any that had come before the Senate in more than a decade.

A majority of senators, 54, voted yes. But it did not meet the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster in the Democrat-controlled chamber. And it was never considered in the Republican-led House.

“We haven’t even had a subcommittee hearing in the House,” said Colin Goddard, 27, who was shot in the leg, hips, and shoulder during French class in 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech. “It’s frustrating.”

He talked about the newest families who were flown Monday to unknown hospitals to start an unknown life of coping with loss.

“You just kind of put it toward your resolve and you keep going,” said Goddard, who has become a leading gun control advocate. “What else can we do?”

Goddard said he no longer believes it will be an individual attack that changes the law. Instead, it will be “a constant drop” of constituents calling lawmakers and demanding that they “protect my family.” Frank, the Newtown activist, said the killings in his idyllic hometown opened his eyes to the gun violence that infects American cities every day.

He and other advocates said the Senate vote in April was in fact a milestone, given the struggle to get either party to consider gun legislation. They noted that other mass movements took many years to build coalitions.

“We ought to be outraged again that the nation has done nothing to stop gun violence” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.

Blumenthal made those comments Tuesday in an interview on his way to a hearing on Syria, a reminder that the Capitol is full of crises on any given day. Gun advocates had to fight for attention. House members were debating the budget, the economy, and religious freedom in South Central Asia on Tuesday. Senators were discussing energy conservation and Obama’s health care law.

Another hearing that Blumenthal had planned to attend Tuesday, on the expanding use of deadly force by civilians, was canceled because of the Navy Yard shooting. The six witness chairs in the cavernous Senate hearing room were empty. The discussion on guns, one of several events on the activists’ three-day schedule, would have to wait, delayed indefinitely because of gun violence.

Yet in other parts of Washington, even the usually stoic medical professionals were crying out for help.

“I may see this every day. I may, you know, be the chief medical officer of a very large trauma center,” said Janis Orlowski, who treated victims at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, in a press conference that was widely rebroadcast Monday. “But there’s something wrong here when we have these multiple shootings.”

“Let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington, D.C. This is not good,” she added. “So we have got to work to get rid of this.”

Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman