A month after Elizabeth Esty was elected to Congress two years ago, and two weeks before she was sworn in to office, 20 first grade students and six educators were murdered inside an elementary school in the district she was to represent.
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that day dramatically changed the agenda of lawmakers and the conversation about guns in Connecticut. The General Assembly adopted one of the toughest gun control laws in the country, banning the type of high-capacity rifle that was used in the shooting, expanding gun registration and background check requirements, and limiting the size of ammunition clips.
It was a different story in Washington, though, as Connecticut’s freshman congresswoman and the rest of the state’s delegation ran into a gun rights lobby with unprecedented control of the U.S. House and Senate.
Esty is seeking re-election to a second term representing Newtown and the 5th District, and with less than two weeks before an election facing off against Republican real estate developer Mark Greenberg, she is talking about how to get Washington to do something about gun violence.
On Thursday afternoon, Esty will by joined by California Congressman Mike Thompson in a meeting with students at Newtown High School. Thompson, a Democrat who is an avid hunter and longtime member of the National Rifle Association, chairs the U.S. House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, established in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.
Esty co-sponsored a bill with Thompson that has been one of the few, modest victories for stronger gun control in Congress over the past two years. It added $19.5 million in funding to improve the national system of background checks on gun purchases.
Background checks made news recently in Esty’s race against Greenberg. She is trying to paint the race as a clear choice between a Democrat who supports stronger gun control measures in the wake of Sandy Hook and a far-right Republican with a 100 percent rating from the NRA who would oppose even “common sense” reforms.
But Greenberg surprised Esty in their first debate by agreeing with her that Congress should push for “universal background checks” on gun purchases, closing exceptions that exist for gun shows and other loopholes.
The next day, the NRA dropped its rating of Greenberg’s candidacy from “A” to “F.”
Greenberg said the shooting at Sandy Hook changed his mind about background checks. But Esty accuses his campaign of sending mixed signals and has criticized Greenberg’s reluctance to get into the details of specific federal legislation he would support or oppose.
The Newtown Action Alliance, an organization that was founded in the weeks following the shooting and which has been instrumental in advocating for stronger gun control measures, has a youth division that is hosting Esty and Thompson on Thursday.
Po Murray, director of the organization, said it’s “a nonpolitical event,” but that Greenberg is not invited.
She praised Esty, though, for not only helping support the organization’s lobbying efforts in Washington, but for supporting the community of Newtown through the many various issues that had to be addressed after the shooting, including obtaining funding for mental health counseling.
“She is truly a champion for gun safety laws and she has been here supporting the family members and the community,” Murray said. “She’s a mother. She truly brings a compassionate voice for this issue. Not only as a politician and a representative, but as a mom . . . Most of us are just accidental activists. We’ve never done this before in our lives.”
Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager, said that Greenberg intentionally ignored the NRA’s candidate questionnaire this year because he doesn’t believe the Sandy Hook shooting should be politicized. That’s what led to the confusion about the NRA’s rating of Greenberg. It was based on a questionnaire he filled out two years ago in a previous, unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in the 5th District.
“Given the sensitivity of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, and Democrats like Senator (Richard) Blumenthal shamelessly exploiting the tragedy in fundraising emails and press releases, we did not answer any gun related surveys this campaign cycle, on either side of the aisle,” Evans said following the NRA’s downgrade of Greenberg. “This concern came to fruition (at the first debate) when the Congresswoman tried to use the tragedy to score cheap political points. Mark’s position on the Second Amendment — and quite frankly on all the amendments — is very clear. It is absolutely shameful for politicians like Dannel Malloy, Dick Blumenthal, and Elizabeth Esty to use this tragedy in an attempt to win an election and is another example of why we need to elect people like Mark Greenberg who will work to solve pressing issues and not spend their time trying to divide people.”
Esty blames failure to enact gun reforms in Congress over the past two years on Republican House Speaker John Boehner. She believes measures such as universal background checks would pass the House if Boehner would simply allow a vote.
“It will eventually happen because it’s the right thing and the American people want it,” she said in an editorial board meeting with the New Haven Register earlier this month. “I’m going to keep pushing, and I think the Newtown families will keep pushing.”
She cited the bill providing more funding for background checks as part of a strategy of trying to chip away at passing smaller, achievable parts of a more comprehensive gun control agenda. Closing background check loopholes, and making “straw purchases” of guns and the transport of illegal guns across state lines felonies are other examples she cites as measures she will push for if re-elected.