Child deaths aren’t enough to inspire lawmakers to implement gun reform anymore

After Sandy Hook, lawmakers weren't moved to take action.

A mourner holds a candle during a vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Darren Abate)
A mourner holds a candle during a vigil held for the victims of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Darren Abate)

About half of the victims killed during a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday were children, according to Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt.

“People from this community would never think this could happen,” Tackitt said on Monday, describing the scene inside the First Baptist Church as “a horrific sight.”

“You don’t expect to walk into church and find mauled bodies,” he added.

Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, confirmed in a press conference Monday that “several” of the victims were children. 

“Yesterday, we released information that the ages ranged from 5 to 73. Those were the ones being treated at the hospital,” Martin clarified. “Inside the church, the deceased actually ranged from 18 months to 77 years of age.”

According to family members who confirmed the deaths to several media outlets, the deceased included 18-month-old Noah Holcombe, whose family lost eight members in total; two young girls — Brooke Ward, 5, and Emily Garza, 7 — whose mother also died in the attack; and 14-year-old Annabelle Pomeroy, daughter of Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherri.

As The Daily Beast noted on Monday, the United States has encountered this sort of devastation before, specifically in terms of loss of young life: the Sutherland Springs shooting marks the worst U.S. mass murder of children since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December 2012, in which 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 were killed after a lone gunman opened fire inside the Newtown, Connecticut school.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, many believed that efforts to increase gun safety and tighten loopholes would go unchallenged. Surely, the deaths of young children would prompt lawmakers to act in a way they might not have before.

Tragically, that turned out not to be the case.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, of course. Petitions were launched, with one attracting hundreds of thousands of signatures in a matter of days. Nonprofit gun control advocacy groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported a massive surge in donations. President Obama, for his part, announced he would sign 23 executive orders meant to stem the tide of gun violence in Sandy Hook’s devastating wake. Among those orders, a mandate requiring federal agencies “to make relevant data available to the federal background check system” and a directive to the Department of Homeland Security to develop emergency operations models for schools, houses of worship, and universities and colleges.

Obama’s announcement, however, was immediately met with push-back from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

“We look forward to working with Congress on a bi-partisan basis to find real solutions to protecting America’s most valuable asset — our children,” the organization wrote in a statement. “[…But] attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”

During a press conference on December 21, 2012, one week following the Sandy Hook incident, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre took things a step further, suggesting that more guns would prevent mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook.

“I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation,” he said. “…The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away or a minute away?”

LaPierre added, “If we truly cherish our kids, more than our money, more than our celebrities, more than our sports stadiums, we must give them the greatest level of protection possible. And that security is only available with properly trained, armed good guys.”

On Capitol Hill, gun control advocates faced even more shocking pushback when three separate pieces of legislation — a ban on high-capacity magazines, a ban on assault weapons, and a bipartisan effort to “expand background checks for gun buyers”, according to The New York Times — were all defeated on the Senate Floor in a single day.

“Criminals do not submit to background checks now. They will not submit to expanded background checks,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) argued, referring to the latter piece of legislation.

The Times reported afterward that the NRA had spent $500,000 in one day, running ads which claimed Obama was attempting to ban guns altogether and urging supporters to call their senators and tell them to vote against the measures.

Families of the Sandy Hook victims were devastated but undeterred.

“We’ll return home now, disappointed but not defeated,” said Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in the shooting. “We return home with the determination that change will happen — maybe not today, but it will happen. It will happen soon. We’ve always known this would be a long road, and we don’t have the luxury of turning back. Our hearts are broken, our spirit is not.”

Unfortunately, as the years that followed would show, change would not happen so easily. Similar gun control measures introduced following the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead — including an amendment that would have required background checks for all gun sales (with an exception for loans and “gifts” between family members) — were also voted down in 2016. According to the Times, “Republicans said it was too broad.”

Even a brutal mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada this past October that left 58 dead and more than 500 injured did nothing to nudge lawmakers in the right direction. While there was early bipartisan consensus among legislators over the need to ban bump stocks — devices that modify a firearm so that it fires at the same rate as a fully automatic weapon — talk of gun control reform fizzled quickly. A bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stalled out three days after its introduction. And despite dogged persistence by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), gun reform went nowhere.

Gun control advocates now point to the hopeless dilemma facing the nation, in the wake of mass tragedies like Sandy Hook and now Sutherland Springs. If the deaths of children aren’t enough to move Congress to action and soften the tone from the pro-gun lobby, and countless attempts to find a middle ground on gun issues continue to be dismissed, what’s left?

If past efforts are any indicator, things moving forward appear grim.

“It’s been 35 days since the mass shooting in my congressional district,” Rep. Titus lamented in a press release on November 6, following the Texas shooting. “How many more days must pass and how many more innocent people must die before the GOP is willing to take action?”