How Newtown Transformed Gun Activism


In the year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the American gun debate was thrust into the center of the national conversation. The horrific shooting, which left 20 children and 6 adults dead, galvanized both advocates and opponents of stricter gun regulation. 2013 saw a slew of new gun laws in virtually every state; 29 states weakened gun restrictions while 21 others and DC strengthened them. Even after a widely popular bipartisan bill to expand background checks on gun sales failed in the Senate, Newtown continues to shape the way Americans think about guns — and the way activists talk to them.

Below is a rundown of where gun activists stand one year after Newtown:

The Gun Lobby

Broke decade-old records in fundraising. The NRA’s Political Victory Fund broke records this year, raking in the most money since the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. As of September 30, the fund raised $10.2 million, topping 2012’s fundraising by $1 million. NRA membership also soared, surpassing 5 million members in May. About 250,000 of those new members signed on within a month of the Newtown shooting.

Exploded gun sales. As the NRA spread false rumors that the government was using background check legislation as a ruse to track gun owners and seize firearms, guns flew off the shelves. The manufacturer of the popular XM-15 assault rifle (used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown shooting), enjoyed profits of $94 million on guns and ammo sales through the end of September, far surpassing last year’s paltry $500,000 in profit.

Militarized more schools. In a press conference a week after Newtown, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre argued that the shooting could be blamed on a lack of guns in schools. He called for schools to enlist more armed guards to prevent future shootings — and many have listened. Twenty states have passed laws to put more guns in schools, from authorizing volunteer security forces to allowing staffers to keep guns on campus. Some school districts are training and arming teachers and staff to act as security guards, while others now hold shooting drills.

Punished state lawmakers who passed stronger gun regulations. The NRA poured more than $360,000 into a campaign to recall two lawmakers in Colorado, home to two of the most deadly mass shootings in US history, after they backed the state’s new, stricter gun laws. The two Democratic senators were successfully pushed out of office, and a third, who sponsored legislation to make it harder for domestic abusers to get guns, resigned as pressure mounted against her.

Gun Safety Advocates

More anti-gun violence advocacy than ever before. Though the pro-gun groups trounced gun control advocates in terms of federal lobbying dollars, the movement to tighten gun safety regulations is larger and more influential than ever. Advocates and victims formed two new major groups, Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense and Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, adding a combined 225,000 members this year. Families of Sandy Hook victims formed the Sandy Hook Promise, which has garnered 274,000 signatures of people vowing to promote gun safety laws in their communities. Additionally, Gabby Giffords’ super PAC devoted to gun control has attracted widespread grassroots support, raising $6.5 million in the first half of 2013 from 72,000 donors who contributed an average sum of $64 each.

Turned previously A-rated lawmakers against the NRA. After Newtown, anti-gun violence advocates inspired several senators who previously won the NRA’s ‘A’ grade to buck the gun lobby and fight for stricter gun laws. Influential legislators who sacrificed their NRA standing include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

Made the NRA politically toxic. The NRA’s stamp of approval was once coveted by most aspiring political candidates, Democrat and Republican. The recent Virginia gubernatorial election, in which gun violence surfaced as a key issue, demonstrated how much the political math has changed on gun control. Democrat Terry McAuliffe defied the NRA, openly discussing his support for strong background check laws and even boasting about his F rating from the NRA. Failed candidate Ken Cuccinelli (R), meanwhile, touted his A grade from the NRA at Virginia Tech, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, unleashed more than $1.7 million on ads attacking Cuccinelli’s opposition to stronger background checks, which 92 percent of Virginians favor. Outside Virginia, Bloomberg vowed to launch attacks against lawmakers who voted against the Senate’s background check bill. Polls showed he was largely successful; approval ratings for targeted senators like Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Dean Heller (R-NV) sank after they voted against the bill, putting them in the odd position of insisting they did, in fact, support gun control.

Transformed gun control into a national conversation. Gun control advocates have adopted a much more in-your-face strategy than before Newtown, flooding the airwaves with arresting ads in which victims and families share their experiences with gun violence. Ahead of Newtown’s anniversary, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns released an especially haunting ad depicting a gunman walking into a school at the same time Adam Lanza reportedly began shooting. Now, as the NRA’s lobbying blitz has subsided after defeating the federal background checks bill, the gun violence prevention movement is refocusing on cultivating state and local-level support.