Four Months After Newtown

April 22nd, 2013

What changed from December 14, 2012, the day of the tragic killings in Newtown, and April 17, 2013, the day the Manchin-Toomey Amendment failed in the Senate? How could such a strong fervor for change fizzle out in such a short period of time?

Let’s track the progression.

On December 14, 2012, the day of the shooting, many rallied around the killings in Newtown to call for change. Michael Bloomberg callously stated:

President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership – not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today. This is a national tragedy and it demands a national response. My deepest sympathies are with the families of all those affected, and my determination to stop this madness is stronger than ever.

On that day, The White House said “today’s not the day” to talk about gun control.

The President waited two days, till the memorial after the killings on 12/16, to call for reform. I suppose this is restraint. In his remarks, the President called on us to seize the moment, and change:

As a country, we have been through this too many times.  Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.  And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

Adam Winkler wrote:

When the president said Americans were “going to have to come together to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” it looked as if new federal gun laws were inevitable. Polls showed significant majorities in support of universal background checks and restrictions on military-style rifles, and many in Washington were beginning to question the power of the NRA after the gun rights group’s favored candidates fared poorly in the November elections.

On January 16, a month after Newtown, the President stressed that we need to honor the memories of the victims by reforming the law. Every day these laws are not signed, more children will die:

Now, over the month since the tragedy in Newtown, we’ve heard from so many. And obviously, none have affected us more than the families of those gorgeous children and their teachers and guardians who were lost. And so we’re grateful to all of you for taking the time to be here and recognizing that we honor their memories in part by doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again.


And that’s why last month, I asked Joe to lead an effort, along with members of my cabinet, to come up with some concrete steps we can take right now to keep our children safe, to help prevent mass shootings, to reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.

And we can’t put this off any longer.

Just last Thursday, as TV networks were covering one of Joe’s meetings on this topic, news broke of another school shooting, this one in California.

In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun — 900 in the past month.

And every day we wait the number will keep growing.

He then signed a number of executive orders to implement immediate change

So I’m putting forward a specific set of proposals based on the work of Joe’s task force. And in the days ahead I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality.

Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.

OBAMA: And I’m gonna do my part. As soon as I’m finished speaking here I will sit at that desk and I will sign a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence.

At the State of the Union adress on February 13, 2013, two months after Newtown, the President made the point of stressing that Newtown was already two months in the past–so no one would forget it:

Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource – our children.

It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform – like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals.

Later, he called on the imminence of these harms to spur Congress to vote.

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.

Oddly enough, it was Harry Reid who never brought the law for a full vote, as that would have required a debate and amendments–something he did not want to do.

He closed by noting that his laws would not be perfect,but it would do something.

Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government

On March 28, 2013, roughly three months after the killings in Newtown, the President worried that post-Newtown momentum (for lack of better word) to advance gun control laws has faded.

The notion that two months or three months after something as horrific as what happened in Newtown happens and we’ve moved on to other things? That’s not who we are. That’s not who we are. And I want to make sure every American is listening today. Now, I want to make sure every American is listening today. Less than a hundred days ago that happened. And the entire country was shocked, and the entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten. I haven’t forgotten those kids. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”

On April 17, 2013–four months after Newtown–the Manchin-Toomey amendment failed in the Senate. The President offered striking remarks.

 A few months ago, in response to too many tragedies — including the shootings of a United States Congresswoman, Gabby Giffords, who’s here today, and the murder of 20 innocent schoolchildren and their teachers –- this country took up the cause of protecting more of our people from gun violence.

Families that know unspeakable grief summoned the courage to petition their elected leaders –- not just to honor the memory of their children, but to protect the lives of all our children.  And a few minutes ago, a minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn’t worth it.  They blocked common-sense gun reforms even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery.

Adam Winkler has an insightful piece in The New Republic discussing what went wrong. In short, the answer is four months elapsed, and in Washington that can be a lifetime.

After Newtown, it was clear to everyone on the gun control side that speed was of the essence. The longer it took to move a bill to the floor for a vote, the harder it would be to win. In recognition of this, President Obama appeared to act quickly. He appointed a special commission headed up by Joe Biden to come up with proposals, then gave the commission a tight deadline of mid-January to make its recommendations.

While the commission acted unusually fast by Washington standards, in effect it served to delay unnecessarily the announcement of proposed reforms.

So what happened in this four month delay? Winkler notes:

The four-month delay enabled the NRA to rally its troops—and, more importantly, its allies in Congress. Senators like Texas’s Ted Cruz adopted the NRA’s well-worn playbook in defeating gun laws: insist that any new law will violate the Second Amendment and lead to a national registry that will be used to confiscate all our guns.

The results of the four-month delay can be seen in public opinion polls. One recent poll showed that support for stricter gun laws has declined more than 15% since January. A majority of Americans also say they disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the gun issue. Lawmakers in Congress see these numbers—especially senators in competitive districts or those worried about a primary challenge from the right.

Megan McCardle writes that what Obama should have done was move fast!

 They waited too long, squandering the political opening afforded by Newtown. They appointed a commission to make recommendations that they could have gotten from the Violence Policy Center the day after the Sandy Hook shootings.  And they asked for too much, of the wrong things.


By spending time on an assault weapons ban, gun controllers hurt themselves in multiple ways.  They energized the NRA’s base, who could probably have been persuaded to live with background checks.  They wasted time, which had a huge cost: gun owners care about gun rights all the time, but the rest of the population mostly cares about gun control in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.  And they made themselves look less like serious negotiators who were willing to come to a compromise that the other side could accept, and more like they were trying to reinstate the kind of gun laws that NRA members had spent two decades beating back. In other words, by demanding more, they got less.

They needed to be superbly tactical: move fast, propose a modest agreement that got the public on their side without fanning too much of a frenzy among the NRA’s membership, and get it done.  Instead they squandered their post-Newtown momentum on an unwinnable negotiating position, and lost everything.

McCardle’s point on how to effectively pass the law is a variation of the Rahm Emanuel principle of crisis legislation. Emanuel famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

The President must have realized all-too-well what happened during those four months. In March, the President it was not American to let tragedy strike, and not move quickly to legislate a response while the passions are still inflamed. I noted in response that this is exactly the way our system is supposed to work.

He’s wrong. That’s exactly who Americans are. Passing laws in the heat of the moment, with passions aflame, is bad policy. Waiting till tempers cool, and thinking things through, is much more beneficial. Laws never go into effect right away (you have to pass laws to find out whats in them nowadays). The President certainly knows that. An immediate law would provide no immediate relief. Now, with time (barely 100 days) we see that when people have had a chance to reflect, and the President’s desired laws are no longer popular.

The President understands the power of urgency very well. He knew that if he did not pass the Affordable Care Act when he did, he never would. The opposition and unpopularity did not deter him.

In my mind, the delay is the exact wrong way that such a momentous law should be passed. If support for a law wanes after 4 months, than its a good thing that the law failed. We are saddled with laws for a lifetime. Sure, laws become unpopular after they are enacted, but if the verve to enact a law fizzles out in a few months, then there is likely not enough support to carry through a law during its lifetime. The lengthy, contested, arduous deliberative process of our Constitution is a feature, not a bug, of our republic.

After the law was defeated, the President specifically addressed the emotions in the aftermath of tragedy:

 When Newtown happened, I met with these families and I spoke to the community, and I said, something must be different right now.  We’re going to have to change.  That’s what the whole country said.  Everybody talked about how we were going to change something to make sure this didn’t happen again, just like everybody talked about how we needed to do something after Aurora.  Everybody talked about we needed change something after Tucson.

And I’m assuming that the emotions that we’ve all felt since Newtown, the emotions that we’ve all felt since Tucson and Aurora and Chicago — the pain we share with these families and families all across the country who’ve lost a loved one to gun violence — I’m assuming that’s not a temporary thing.  I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different to prevent these things from happening are not empty words.

I believe we’re going to be able to get this done.  Sooner or later, we are going to get this right.  The memories of these children demand it.  And so do the American people.

Passion for a law that everyone talked about on December 14, but no one talked about on December 13, would eventually revert to December 13 levels. We returned to the status quo of what people wanted, without the emotions clouding judgment.

One political sidenote. Gun control legislation was noticeably absent during the 2012 election–barely 2 months before Newtown. Obama never made gun control as part of his agenda. In fact, many liberals claimed conservatives were conspiracy theoriests for saying that Obama soft-pedaled the gun issue during his first term, in order to secretly launch it during his second term. Shortly before his inauguration, he suddenly made guns the centerpiece of his second term. This wasn’t an issue that got him elected. He shouldn’t have been surprised about this reaction.

In its post-mortem, WSJ stresses an important point.

People who cling to their guns, or merely to the Constitution, aren’t part of the coalition that Mr. Obama believes re-elected him, and his mistake was thinking they would simply dissolve into history’s rearview mirror in his new progressive era.

I am working on an article on how politicians use and abuse the passions generated after tragedies to enact legislation–particularly in the context of mass shootings–and how this ties into my previous work on Black Swan theory. More over the summer.

Update: Polling data reflects a change over the last four months:

Four months after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a USA TODAY Poll finds support for a new gun-control law ebbing as prospects for passage on Capitol Hill seem to fade.

Americans are more narrowly divided on the issue than in recent months, and backing for a bill has slipped below 50%, the poll finds. By 49%-45%, those surveyed favor Congress passing a new gun-control law. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in early April, 55% had backed a stricter gun law, which was down from 61% in February.

The survey of 1,002 adults was taken Thursday through Sunday by Princeton Survey Research. The margin of error is +/- 4 percentage points.

Those who support a bill want advocates in Congress to hang tough and not compromise — an attitude that also could complicate passing legislation. Sixty-one percent say members of Congress “should only agree to a stronger version of the bill, even if it might not pass.” Just 30% say they should “accept a weaker law” they know can win approval.

“So much of the support for gun control is emotional, following the Newtown tragedy,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the non-partisanRothenberg Political Report. The December shooting at the Connecticut school left 20 children and six adults dead. “The longer you get away from there, people start thinking of other issues. They start thinking about terrorism or jobs or immigration, and not surprisingly, then some of the momentum behind gun control starts to fade.”