POLITICS

Six months after Newton, families still pushing for tougher gun control laws

06/14/2013 03:17 EDT | Updated 08/14/2013 05:12 EDT
WASHINGTON - Six months ago, a troubled young man toting his mother's semiautomatic rifle gunned down 26 people, most of them young children, in small-town Connecticut in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

On Friday, the community of Newtown held a moment of silence for the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School after family members recited the names of their murdered loved ones. Later in the day, teachers from the school were slated to begin reading the names of the 6,000 people killed in gun violence since the Newtown shooting in a grim ceremony expected to take as long as 12 hours.

It all served as a stark reminder of the scant progress made on efforts to toughen gun control laws since Newtown, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's pleas in the days following the massacre that Sandy Hook must mark a turning point in the uniquely American love affair with firearms.

Gun control is a hot-button issue in the United States, where there are an estimated 300 million guns in circulation. There's at least one firearm in as many as 45 per cent of the nation's homes, making Americans the most heavily armed people on Earth.

While a handful of states, including Connecticut, New York and Colorado, passed tougher gun control laws in the aftermath of Newtown, support for tougher gun control measures nationwide has been sinking in recent months after climbing dramatically shortly after the shooting.

A gun-rights Republican in Connecticut recently won a special election after a Democrat vacated his seat in the state legislature. It's the first time in 40 years a Republican has won the district, located in the northeastern reaches of the state about 100 kilometres from Newtown.

"Every day I was out knocking on doors, I would get at least one person who was really ticked off about the gun bill," Samuel Belsito said of the state's new gun control laws. "There were an awful lot of people, including Democrats, who are really ticked off about the gun bill.''

The Obama administration, however, insists it's not giving up on tougher gun control laws. Neither is Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City whose organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, launched a 25-city bus tour from Newtown on Friday.

A day earlier, Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden reassured the Newtown families that they'll continue to push for tougher gun control legislation despite the defeat in the U.S. Senate in April of a modest bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks on those seeking to purchase firearms.

"We want them to know that ... we will never forget and we will continue to fight alongside them," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

Newtown family members have become critical in the Obama administration's efforts, even though it's an agonizing task for them. They were devastated in April, for example, when the Senate bill was defeated.

"This pain is excruciating and unbearable but thanks to people like you, that come out and support us, we are able to get through this," Carlee Soto, sister of slain Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto, told the crowd in Newtown on Friday.

Several family members travelled to the U.S. capital this week, taking to the steps of the Capitol building to read the names of those killed and urge lawmakers to try once again to pass a background check law.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democat, insists the families' efforts are getting through to many legislators even if they were cowed in April by the might of the powerful National Rifle Association.

“Members of the Senate know what the right thing to do here is, and ultimately a whole bunch of them decided to vote with the NRA because they were worried about their political tails, and their heart strings still matter,” Murphy told MSNBC.

“There are a lot of senators who are coming up to me on the Senate floor and saying .... 'You know what, I’m not real excited about going up against this movement next fall, is there a way that maybe we can get this bill back on the floor, make it a little better, and try to take a second vote,'" Murphy said.

Bloomberg, meantime, sent a letter this week asking Democratic donors not to support the party's senators who voted against the background check bill. The NRA, on the other hand, is targeting Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation.

The organization released a television ad this week that urged West Virginians to call Manchin's office and tell him to "to honour his commitment to the Second Amendment."

The NRA has long insisted it merely advocates for the constitutional right to bear arms for average American citizens. In recent years, however, there's been increasing evidence that the lobby group receives major funding from gun manufacturers and private security firms.

Former president Bill Clinton decried the NRA on Friday for its attempts to "terrify people," praising both Manchin and his co-sponsor, Republican Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, for being "willing to fight through this."

“What happens is if you tread on this, the NRA or the Gun Owners of America will run an ad against you or billboard against you and say you’re trying to take their guns away, and then people get into this hunker-down mode where they don’t want to take a chance," he added.