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Gun control debate revived in wake of Newtown shooting

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 00:01


Oliver Porter / Tufts Daily

The White House’s gun control package faces contention in Congress.


This article is part one of three in a series on issues surrounding gun control. 

As the school day was just beginning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, 2012, 20 year-old Adam Lanza took the lives of 26 people, including 20 students between six and seven years old and six adults. Earlier that day, Lanza killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and later took his own life as law enforcement officers arrived at the school.

One of the deadliest school shootings in the United States, the Sandy Hook shooting prompted a stricken nation to flood a small, traumatized community with condolences. More than that, the shooting provoked a major resurfacing of the long-debated issue of gun control. 

Debate surrounding interpretations of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” is not new to national politics. This discourse is driven by increasingly frequent and traumatic mass shootings, including those at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Penn., Fort Hood military base in Texas, “Congress on Your Corner” in Tucson, Ariz., the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. and now Sandy Hook Elementary School.  

“The primary political implication is that it put gun control back on the congressional agenda where it’s been largely absent for quite a long time,” Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry said. “It doesn’t mean they will necessarily do anything, but they will consider legislation and they will decide whether or not to move it forward to the President’s desk.”

Beyond the debate in Washington, the shootings sparked the attention of the American public. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month, 52 percent of Americans say that they are more supportive of gun control in the wake of the Newtown shooting.

“What you see over and over again is that ... on most issues, people aren’t paying really close attention and so opinions tend to move very slowly,” Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences James Glaser said. “But dramatic events shine a spotlight onto problems, and the Newtown shootings were a kind of dramatic event that shined a spotlight on a number of problems [including] guns, mental health [and] school safety.”


Dynamic of Obama’s second term

Described by President Barack Obama as the worst day yet of his presidency, the shooting in Newtown compelled the President to act. Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force to discuss the issue of gun violence and create policy proposals for the President.

Within a week of the shooting, Biden led the first of this task force’s many meetings, and over the course of the following weeks, Biden had met with various stakeholders and interest groups, including law enforcement officers, members of the mental health community, gun owners and the National Rifle Association (NRA), interfaith groups, large retailers and representatives of the entertainment industry. 

Just a month after the shooting, Biden presented Obama with his recommendations for policies to curb gun violence. A few days later, Obama announced 23 executive orders, circumventing Congress and addressing factors such as the federal background check system, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and mental health.

“Even though a lot of the executive orders are simply clarifying existing policy, reminding people what existing policy is, the fact that [Obama] basically went for it is a really powerful symbol,” Associate Professor of Political Science Deborah Schildkraut said. 

The President simultaneously proposed to Congress that they pass laws requiring universal background checks, restoring the ban on military-style assault weapons that expired in 2004, and banning gun magazines with more than 10 rounds.

While many of these proposed bills are being re-filed or introduced at both the state and national level, the ultimate verdict of Obama’s legislative proposal remains unknown. Regardless of the outcome, Obama’s bold action on the issue indicates the assertive nature he brings to his second term.

“I think the President, by issuing ... his executive orders, [has] done what he could do within the parameters of his power to make change,” Glaser said. “I think he’s  liberated somewhat by the fact that he’s not up for reelection again, [that he is] at his peak in his power given the proximity to an election where he’s the only nationally elected figure in this country.”

Obama’s executive orders could encourage other legislators who may be interested in advancing gun control, though might have felt too timid or lacking executive support for their efforts, Schildkraut said. Nevertheless, the dynamic in Congress is one of obstinacy.

“Relations between the parties are just so bad right now ... I think [Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John] Boehner’s response was essentially, ‘Let’s wait and see what the Senate gives us,’ because he knows that the Republican-led House isn’t going to do much to advance this first,” Schildkraut said. “[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid basically said, ‘We don’t want to just make noise if the Senate is going to pass something, I want it to be something that I think could pass the House.’ So if you think about some of the things that Obama proposed that need congressional approval, a lot of them are going to have a real tough time getting passed.”

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