On Newtown Anniversary: Has Anything Changed in America?

On Friday, one day before the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre, an 18-year-old entered a Colorado high school just ten miles from Columbine High, shot two people, and killed himself. It was a stark reminder that, one year after the shootings at Sandy Hook, there’s still plenty of senseless gun violence in the United States. Has the country, in any sense, dealt with our nation's gun problem in a responsible or effective manner? That depends on how you look at it.

Frequency of Mass Shootings

There’s no official definition of a “mass shooting,” largely because the word “mass” is vague. One could argue that anytime more than two people are shot in the same incident, it’s a mass shooting. But that’s very broad: does “mass” really mean “more than two?” The FBI defines a “mass murderer” as someone who kills four or more people, but to peg the definition to the amount of people would miss the many incidents — such as the first mass shooting of the year — wherein multiple people are shot, but not killed.

Reddit users at the Guns Are Cool subforum* have attempted to crowdsource every mass shooting in 2013, and in doing so, they defined a “mass shooting” as any incident wherein four or more people are shot. That sounds about right to us, although of course there’s no final word on this. The result of this effort — which is incredibly impressive and the only thing like it on the Internet — shows 349 mass shootings since the Jan. 1, 2013.

That comes out to just a shade under one mass shooting every day, a statistic that really requires no further elaboration.

Federal Response to Gun Violence

Mass shootings in America, then, are roughly as common as the sun rising.

Even by that standard, though, the nature of the Newtown killings seemed to be in a category unto itself, and many — including President Obama — had some hope that the episode would serve as a wake-up call to Congress. Obama responded by signing 23 executive actions on guns, but most of them were rather modest or vague, such as the directive to “nominate an ATF director.” Obama also assigned Vice President Biden to head up a task force on gun violence. Most importantly, though, Obama implored Congress to pass some — any — gun control legislation.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein pushed hard for an assault rifles ban (despite the fact that such a ban wouldn’t have prevented Newtown), but a policy requiring universal background checks seemed to hold the most promise of both passing Congress and having a tangible effect on gun violence. The hope was that if it was voted on soon enough after Newtown, the political will might just be strong enough to defy the National Rifle Association, and get the legislation passed.

But it wasn’t. The amendment neared the 60-vote threshold Senate Republicans had required in order for it to pass, but ultimately failed by five votes. The larger gun control bill to which it was attached also went nowhere, and House Republicans characteristically did nothing at all about the issue.

Congress has passed exactly zero pieces of gun control legislation since Newtown.

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How The States Strengthened Gun Control

But the federal government isn’t the only entity that can limit gun availability. Many governors and state representatives across the country felt the responsibility to act after Newtown, and in the last year, 109 new gun laws have been signed across the states. In theory, this is at least something gun control advocates can celebrate, but there’s a nasty flipside to state action on gun violence.

First, the good news: Over the last year. 21 states passed a total of 41 new gun control laws. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia made it easier to track gun ownership; two increased restrictions on carrying guns in public, and a total of 13 states enacted some form of background checks legislation. According to a massive nationwide study by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, gun laws were “significantly” strengthened in six states over the last year, and Mother Jones concluded that these new laws will affect roughly 189 million people, or more than half of the country.

These weren't just laws that directly regulated firearms. Many of them sought to improve the delivery of mental health services, which many argue is the real culprit behind many mass shootings. After Newtown, 37 states increased mental health care funding, and 15 passed laws making it harder for people with a history of mental illness to obtain and possess guns. That restriction now applies in 30 states. And on Tuesday, the vice president announced an additional $100 million in federal funding for mental health services.

How The States Weakened Gun Control

A lot of states, most but not all of them Republican-controlled, reacted to the prospect of new federal gun legislation by actually expanding gun access and weakening existing laws at the state level.

Between 70 and 75 states actually passed laws easing gun restrictions in 2013. In Utah, there's now a process by which people designated as mentally ill can ``get their gun licenses back." Since Newtown, nine states have made it easier to carry guns on school grounds, while eight have made it harder for the government to track guns. In total, 29 states eased gun restrictions in some way. Kansas and Alaska passed laws that, as written, direct state authorities to simply ignore federal gun laws, a constitutional question Attorney General Eric Holder has a mixed record in dealing with.

State politics usually gets less attention than national politics, but they also often has more of an affect on people’s lives. That’s most certainly true with gun laws over the past year, considering the national congress didn’t do anything.

Newton's Effect On Policymakers

How the country has responded to Newtown is important, but so is how the country will respond going forward. Ultimately, elected officials are the ones writing the laws, and so the effect that the last year has had on them could provide a clue as to what the future of gun laws may hold.

Frustratingly, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, several of the Senators who helped kill the background checks amendment became substantially less popular in their states after doing so. In a truly cowardly display, Senator Jeff Flake told a mother whose child was killed at Newtown that he supported background checks, then proceeded to vote against the bill. Shortly thereafter, his approval rating plummeted, and he dethroned Mitch McConnell as the least popular senator in the country. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who also voted against the amendment, suffered a 16-point drop in popularity after the vote, and several other senators declined in popularity as well.

This suggests that voting against such broadly popular policy doesn’t come without consequences. Maybe, if background checks are ever proposed again, legislators will think twice before opposing them.

On the other hand, look at what happened in Colorado. John Hickenlooper, the state’s uber-liberal governor, announced a gun control push after the Aurora shootings last year, and the state pushed through a series of truly sweeping gun reforms this year.

But there was a cost to this victory: Two Democratic state senators, including the Senate president, were subsequently recalled from office after the NRA petitions against them. This shrank the Democratic majority in the state Senate to a single seat.

And that is precisely what the NRA, and other pro-gun groups, had intended to make clear with the recall petitions: That there’s a price for supporting gun control. In 2014, will that price outweigh the political, moral, and human cost of continuing to do nothing?