A decade after Sandy Hook: the ongoing fight for US gun reform

Efforts to reshape American law have faced stiff resistance even as tens of thousands die every year

Ten years after Sandy Hook, the fight to end gun violence continues

Ten years after Sandy Hook, the fight to end gun violence continues
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A decade after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the road towards the meaningful reform of America's lax gun laws has seen moments of incremental progress, some landmark victories, unexpected resistance — and tens of thousands of gun-related deaths.

Mary Ann Jacob, a gun reform advocate who survived Sandy Hook, said she was shocked when Congress failed to pass a law on expanded background checks after 20 children and six educators were killed at the school on December 14, 2012.

“Who could have possibly thought after that happened, that trying to do something reasonable for gun violence prevention wouldn't have passed? I mean, I think that was really shocking,” Ms Jacob told The National.

Ms Jacob, who now works part-time for the grassroots organisation Moms Demand Action, said those closest to the Sandy Hook shooting were surprised at the level of resistance to reform, pointing to the influence the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) wielded over Congress.

Then-president Barack Obama said in 2013 that he saw the failed legislative effort as “just round one” in the fight to end gun violence in the country. Little did he know how many more rounds were to follow.

Mass shootings and everyday acts of violence

Ten years after Sandy Hook, mass shootings in the country continue to occur at an alarming rate.

The Gun Violence Archives, which has collected data since 2013, defines mass shootings as an incident in which at least four people, excluding the gunman, are shot or killed.

Using this definition, the US has recorded more than 600 mass shootings this year alone.

The frequency of mass shootings in the US has touched nearly every facet of American life.

A black church in South Carolina was attacked in 2015; a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016; a secondary school in Parkland in 2017; a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018; a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019; and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, this year.

“It's so frustrating to know that we know what could have been done to prevent those things from happening,” Ms Jacob said.

“And that we're watching another large group of people living through the same kind of grief and trauma and loss that our community suffered, and how hard that is.”

Among these unthinkable tragedies that garner global attention are everyday instances of communities torn apart by shootings, including domestic violence and deaths by suicide.

Christian Heyne, a shooting survivor and vice president of policy at the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, says the US must look to these daily events if the problem is to be solved.

The US gun homicide rate is 26 times higher than that of other high-income nations, according to an analysis by the Everytown Support Fund.

“No industrialised country in the world experiences gun violence the way we do here in America, but part of that is because every single day, there are so many people who are killed because of our unfettered access to guns,” Mr Heyne said.

And firearms are the leading cause of death for children, data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevent show.

“It's a public health crisis,” said Po Murray, co-founder and chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance.

A landmark victory after years of tragedy

With victory elusive in Congress, gun-reform activists for years sought progress through presidential executive actions or the nation's patchwork state system.

These state-led victories include 525 gun-safety laws since Sandy Hook, a report from the Giffords Law Centre showed, including in Connecticut, which expanded its existing assault weapons ban among other provisions.

Following tragic shootings in Buffalo, New York, and in Uvalde, this year, a group of Republican senators joined Democrats in creating a new federal law that expands background checks and prevents convicted domestic abusers from owning firearms.

Mr Heyne said the issue has shifted “fundamentally” in 2022, compared to the years before Buffalo and Uvalde.

“What we saw happen this year is the combination of action that's taken place … and was brought into focus by the fact that we let it happen again,” he added.

The NRA opposed the bill.

Gun reform activists celebrated the measure, but also noted it does not do enough.

Joe Biden heckled by father of school shooting victim

Joe Biden heckled by father of school shooting victim

“We're going to need bolder solutions to create transformational changes to reduce the gun deaths and injuries. And that begins with having higher standards for gun ownership,” Ms Murray said.

And Ms Jacobs said universal background checks, raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, and addressing high-capacity magazines are all commonsense provisions.

Still, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act showed that Congress is willing to engage in debate on gun reform.

“We want to live our lives, we want to go to the grocery store, we want our kids to go to school without worrying about getting shot,” Ms Jacob said.

“So really, addressing those issues that are important to the majority of their constituents, I think is something they finally realised they can't ignore anymore.”

Part of that continued effort includes making the NRA less influential in Congress, she said.

The NRA did not respond to The National's request for comment.

Remember Newtown

US federal gun reform since Sandy Hook

- April 17, 2013: A bipartisan-drafted bill to expand background checks and ban assault weapons fails in the Senate.

- July 2015: Bill to require background checks for all gun sales is introduced in House of Representatives. It is not brought to a vote.

- June 12, 2016: Orlando shooting. Barack Obama calls on Congress to renew law prohibiting sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

- October 1, 2017: Las Vegas shooting. US lawmakers call for banning bump-fire stocks, and some renew call for assault weapons ban.

- February 14, 2018: Seventeen pupils are killed and 17 are wounded during a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

- December 18, 2018: Donald Trump announces a ban on bump-fire stocks.

- August 2019: US House passes law expanding background checks. It is not brought to a vote in the Senate.

- April 11, 2022: Joe Biden announces measures to crack down on hard-to-trace 'ghost guns'.

- May 24, 2022: Nineteen children and two teachers are killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

- June 25, 2022: Joe Biden signs into law the first federal gun-control bill in decades.

Speaking to 150 survivors at the tenth annual vigil for gun violence victims in Washington last week, President Joe Biden shared in the grief with survivors and vowed to continue the fight for reform.

“To all of you here tonight, you are the light. You are literally the light. And your loved ones, your friends, they’re the light. And they’ll always be with you, no matter what happens. They’re always with you,” he said.

The president has renewed calls for the Senate to pass a federal assault-weapons ban. That effort is expected to fail before the new Congress is seated next year, but advocates say the battle for gun reform is at a different stage than where it was a decade ago.

“Gun control is now the political high ground,” Ms Murray said.

“And even the Republicans are recognising that fact. We work for a decade to change the national dialogue and demonstrating to Americans that if it could happen in Sandy Hook, then it can happen anywhere — and it has”.

For those frustrated by the lack of government response, Ms Jacobs said activists need to take the initiative by getting involved themselves.

“If you have a representative who doesn't support what you believe for gun violence prevention, complaining about it on Facebook isn't going to solve the problem. Get out and do something about it.”

One survivor who has been spurred to action is Emily Lieberman, who was with 13 of her family members at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, when bullets were sprayed into the crowd.

It was the quick succession of Uvalde and her own experience surviving Highland Park that led her to form a group of other healthcare providers to call for a federal ban on assault weapons.

“Those [shootings] coming together really propelled me to realise that I do have an ability to make change. We all have abilities to make change,” she told The National.

The seemingly glacial pace of reform can be discouraging for Americans desperate for a safer country.

In low moments after mass shootings, or when Congress fails to act, activists seek comfort and support to continue their advocacy.

“It's hard when you're a survivor turned advocate, or a victim or a survivor who's lost a loved one,” said Ms Jacob.

“A lot of what you do is in honour of your loved one, and is so wrapped up in trauma and grief and loss that it's hard to separate the two.

“Look to your … families and get the support you need, so that you can keep going, and so that you can continue to do the work you're doing because it's hard.”

Updated: December 14, 2022, 7:53 AM
US federal gun reform since Sandy Hook

- April 17, 2013: A bipartisan-drafted bill to expand background checks and ban assault weapons fails in the Senate.

- July 2015: Bill to require background checks for all gun sales is introduced in House of Representatives. It is not brought to a vote.

- June 12, 2016: Orlando shooting. Barack Obama calls on Congress to renew law prohibiting sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

- October 1, 2017: Las Vegas shooting. US lawmakers call for banning bump-fire stocks, and some renew call for assault weapons ban.

- February 14, 2018: Seventeen pupils are killed and 17 are wounded during a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

- December 18, 2018: Donald Trump announces a ban on bump-fire stocks.

- August 2019: US House passes law expanding background checks. It is not brought to a vote in the Senate.

- April 11, 2022: Joe Biden announces measures to crack down on hard-to-trace 'ghost guns'.

- May 24, 2022: Nineteen children and two teachers are killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

- June 25, 2022: Joe Biden signs into law the first federal gun-control bill in decades.