After the heartbreak and agony of Newtown, I had just the faintest stirring of hope that we’d reached a turning point on guns. Maybe, just maybe, we could put aside the intractable cultural battle over guns for just a few moments to put into place a few very basic, common sense controls like universal background checks.
I was wrong.
Congress hemmed and hawed before ultimately rejecting any sort of new gun laws, instead deciding to focus on “mental health” as the real reason for the brutal, senseless murder of 20 elementary school children and six of their teachers. Never mind that the butcher had a gun that could fire at least 45 bullets per minute. Never mind that the whole purpose of the AR-15 is killing humans on a large scale — unless you seriously want to argue that it exists just in case you get mobbed by an army of angry ducks. Never mind that it’s incredibly easy to get a gun in this country, and that getting around the few restrictions that do exist is nothing.
Congress didn’t care about any of that. By the time the Senate voted, the NRA and its allies had done their dirty work to shift the debate just enough so that there was an out — the focus on mental health instead of weapons. And then . . . America allowed itself to forget.
We slept. It was an uneasy sleep, but we did not wake.
And then a man who, almost as an afterthought, pledged allegiance to the despicable terrorists of the Islamic State murdered 49 people at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando. I grieved for my community. I withdrew into the safety of friends and family. But I didn’t think for a moment that we would ever wake up, that we would ever change.
Enter Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT.
Murphy, supported by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, staged a 15-hour filibuster demanding action on guns. They yielded the floor in exchange for a promised vote on some basic, popular gun controls, such as keeping those on the terrorist no-fly list from being able to buy guns.
These simple, basic controls were too much for Senate Republicans. They subjected each to a 60-vote threshold, and then proceeded to vote them down.
They were followed Wednesday by Democrats in the House of Representatives staging a remarkable, 25 1/2-hour sit-in, led in part by Rep. John Larson, D-CT, and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, D-GA, in an effort to force the House to act. Republicans in that chamber decided to call a recess until July instead of giving Democrats the vote both they and the country want.
This time there wasn’t enough time to pin the blame on something else. There wasn’t enough time to shift the debate just far enough away from guns for these votes to have any sort of cover. Voters know where their representatives stand. It’s possible guns will be an election issue this November.
Add this to the fact that the Supreme Court is letting stand assault weapons bans here in Connecticut and New York, and that the Sandy Hook families’ lawsuit against AR-15 manufacturer Remington is making actual progress, and for the first time in a very long time there’s hope that we might wake up after all.
This country’s continued fascination and obsession with guns — despite all of the blood that’s been shed, despite the torn bodies and the wailing, grieving families and friends, despite all of the public outrage and scorn from the rest of the world — needs to end. Gun violence is a public health crisis more dangerous than ebola or Zika ever will be. The public wants action, especially on assault weapons like the AR-15.
The NRA, the gun manufacturers, and the collectors and obsessives who keep dozens of guns in safes want us to stay asleep. They whisper reassuring lies about how good guys with guns can prevent mass shootings, about how the narrowly-written Second Amendment guarantees their abuses, how any kind of gun control is nothing but tyranny.
But thanks to Sen. Murphy and his colleagues in the House and Senate, thanks to the persistence of Sandy Hook families, and thanks to the Connecticut legislature’s actions post-Newtown, maybe we are not sleeping so deeply. Maybe, someday soon, we will actually wake up.
In the meantime, I will dream of a nation free of gun violence.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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