For the first term of Barack Obama's presidency, his record on gun control was equivalent to his record on prison reform -- that is to say, essentially nonexistent.
He signed a bill permitting firearms in national parks. After backing a reinstatement of the expired ban on assault weapons in 2008, he put no muscle behind his words. When asked about the issue in a presidential debate, he opened his response by reassuring worried gun owners.
"I believe in the Second Amendment,” Obama began.
All the while, people were dying. A deranged gunman in Arizona killed six and critically wounded a member of Congress; worshippers were shot down at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; moviegoers in Colorado expecting the latest Batman installment encountered instead real mayhem and gunfire; and there were other instances of death from the barrel of a gun too numerous to record.
None of it was enough to move Obama, or Congress, to act. Then came Newtown.
As the details began trickling out the morning of Dec. 14, they seemed too horrific to believe. Reports surfaced about a shooting at an elementary school; it soon became clear that the majority of the slain were small children.
So when the normally stoic president addressed the nation that afternoon, struggling to control his breaking voice and brushing away tears, it felt different.
"We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” Obama said.
A few days later, at a White House press conference, Obama was more direct. He confirmed that he had dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to start culling ideas from the Cabinet, and he reiterated his contention that the status quo is no longer acceptable.
“The fact that this issue is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing,” Obama said. “The fact that we can't prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can't steadily reduce the violence."
Predicting the outcome of legislation that hasn’t even been proposed yet is a losing game, but the signs from Congress are promising so far for gun control advocates. The lawmakers suddenly endorsing some form of gun control have included pro-gun stalwarts like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (the National Rifle Association gave Manchin, a Democrat, an “A”), who said “everything should be on the table.” Some Republicans offered a similar perspective, calling for an all-inclusive conversation.
That has accompanied an outpouring of support from the American people, including a petition for gun control on the White House website that broke previous records for number of signatures (in fairness, there were plenty of petitions resisting gun control and emphasizing the Second Amendment, too).
Perhaps most astonishingly, the rabidly conservative New York Post and the liberal New York Times, in editorials calling for more sensible gun policy, found themselves on the same side of an issue. If that’s not an indication of something momentous, then nothing is.
“This feels very different,” said Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and a veteran of Capitol Hill gun control fights. “People are really looking for how to go forward with this, which is exciting. It’s tragic that it has to happen this way, but it’s about time. So you feel this sort of urgency to get something done.”
“It’s moved from ‘I want to do something, I’m sick of gun violence’ to ‘I have to do something,’” Horwitz added.
Horwitz said his organization has seen an unprecedented flood of interest, with hundreds of people contacting them in an effort to get involved.
“Frankly, I’m totally exhausted from five days of 24/7 activity,” Horwitz said, speaking less than a week after Sandy Hook.
None of that is to say the forces opposing gun control -- or, more accurately, preventing a debate from getting started -- have vanished. Plenty of Republicans have dismissed the notion that gun control can prevent another Newtown, stressing a better mental health system or suggesting that arming teachers could be the solution.
The National Rifle Association, initially silent, hinted at a willingness to compromise with a statement saying it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” That contribution turned out to be a plan to post armed guards outside of every school in America, an approach dubbed the “National School Shield Safety Program.”
“The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at a press conference. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Still, there seems to plenty of will in Washington to get something done. A survey of the ideas being discussed suggests a few likely routes: Limiting the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, reinstating the expired assault weapons ban and tightening the system of background checks are all possibilities.
Of course, Congress and the president can’t alter a deeply entrenched culture of gun ownership that pervades American history and has roots in the Constitution. That falls to individuals and families weighing what their guns mean to them, considering a balance between the right to bear arms and the right to live free from the menace of random, deadly violence.
I have relatives in Connecticut, and the other night we gathered for dinner. My family owns guns -- I can remember the excitement when my brother and I were allowed to take the .22 to go shoot at cans and bottles, graduating from the BB gun we’d played with as younger kids -- and our conversation about those weapons was serious and probing.
Would we be willing to get rid of the guns, my uncle asked hypothetically? We talked about it, and the consensus was that there’s no need. The guns are locked safely away in a gun cabinet, and my younger cousins have been properly educated in how to respect the guns and use them safely.
But those same cousins, ages 12 and 14, also own some Airsoft guns, frighteningly realistic toys they love to play with. They’re considering giving them up. After Newtown, the games they played feel a little less like games.