Here are some things that have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the tragic slaughter of children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut: More signatures on a petition calling for gun control than any other petition that has been sent to the White House; conservative politicians from both parties — for example senators Joe Manchin of W. Virginia, and Marco Rubio of Florida — for the first time signaling their willingness to do something about gun regulation; changing poll numbers about gun control among the general population, with support for stricter control at a ten-year high. And perhaps most significantly, total silence for several days about this incident from the National Rifle Association (NRA), considered to be the most powerful lobby in the United States.
These post-Newtown reactions have led numerous observers to feel that this latest mass murder incident may be a game changer. For years, many politicians have been fearful of offending the NRA and the public has been divided about guns, if not largely indifferent. As a result, there has not been a visible or highly effective gun control movement in this country, in spite of the hard work for many years of groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Correspondingly, there has been almost no Congressional legislative action to curtail guns during the Obama administration, and at the state level, there have been more efforts to expand gun owners’ prerogatives — for example, concealed carry laws — than to limit then.
To be sure, petitions and expressions of outrage by both politicians and the public do not necessarily lead to a social movement. Even if an assault weapons ban is passed — Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to introduce such legislation in January — that might be a one-off event (welcome as it would be), and politicians would then turn their attention to the many other issues on their plates. And recall that there was such a ban passed in 1994 during the Clinton presidency — and then that ban was allowed to quietly expire in 2004. That expiration is a textbook case of what happens when legislation is not accompanied by a vibrant social movement that is able to rally the public and to hold lawmakers accountable.
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