One Year After Newtown: 20 Reasons for Hope And Despair

Gun control faltered in the Senate, but at least some states are passing stricter laws after the tragedy at Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
A pair of angel wings and balloons stand at a makeshift shrine to the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
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One year ago this week, 20-year-old Adam Lanza embarked on his bloody rampage at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In less than 11 minutes, firing 154 rounds from a Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S, Lanza executed 20 first graders at close range, along with six school teachers and administrators. Lanza then took his own life with a single shot to the head from a Glock 20, 10mm pistol. The guns belonged to his mother, Nancy, whom Adam Lanza had murdered earlier that morning with her .22 caliber Savage Mark II rifle.

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The massacre was supposed to be a game-changer for America's relationship with guns. "There has been a change in the Zeitgeist," mayor Michael Bloomberg told Rolling Stone shortly after the tragedy. "The events in Connecticut connected with people. Keep in mind there's 32 people killed every day; that doesn't seem to connect. But these 26 people did."

But progress on gun control in the 12 months since Sandy Hook has been halting at best. In a stunning display of cowardice, the U.S. Senate sided with the National Rifle Association over nearly 90 percent of Americans, blocking universal background checks for gun buyers. The progress at the state level has been more encouraging, as a half-dozen states passed strict new gun laws, and lived to tell the tale – excepting two state legislators in Colorado who were ousted in an NRA-orchestrated recall election.

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As we recall Lanza's young victims, and the grief and outrage we felt last December 14th, here are 20 reasons for hope, and despair, in the aftermath of Newtown:

DESPAIR: The Gun-Buying Boom

The Newtown massacre set off a grotesque six-month gun-buying spree as Americans stocked up on assault rifles they feared might soon be banned. The boom – which cleared out inventories of AR-15 rifles faster than the gunmakers could replenish them – is reflected in the number of background checks performed by the FBI. (The government is barred from tracking actual gun purchases, so the background checks provide the closest proxy data.)

In December 2012, the month of the massacre, the FBI processed a record 2.78 million background checks – up nearly 900,000 from the previous December. There were 113,022 background checks on the day of the massacre itself.

The buying boom raged through January 2013 – which registered greater than 1 million more background checks than the previous January – and continued to hit monthly records before finally reverting to a pre-Newtown baseline in May.

HOPE: New York Passes Gun Control

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo fought the NRA as Bill Clinton's Housing and Urban Development secretary in the 1990s – and lost, famously declaring: "If we engage the enemy in Washington we will lose . . . . Their fortress is within the Beltway," and predicting: "We're going to beat them state by state."

Following the Sandy Hook massacre, Cuomo didn't waste a second. Within the month, he'd signed one of the strictest gun-control laws in the country and left the NRA frothing at the mouth: "Governor Andrew Cuomo, in stunningly brazen fashion, took a hatchet to gun rights in New York with lightning speed."

The New York law:

  • Bans possession or sale of high capacity magazines, and limits the number of legal bullets in a gun to seven
  • Boosts the state's assault weapons ban, forbidding sale of weapons with a single militarized feature
  • Mandates background checks for ammo purchases as well as gun buyers
  • Requires gun owners to report weapons theft to police
  • Creates new mental-health safeguards, requiring therapists to report clients who threaten violence


DESPAIR: Federal Reform Dies

Unlike New York's Governor, President Obama failed to seize the moment. The president slow-walked reform, tapping Vice President Joe Biden to lead a month-long task force that convened cabinet members and stakeholders to debate gun-control options and alternatives. Announcing this plan on December 19th, 2012, Obama pooh-poohed the risk of delay: "The idea that we would say this is terrible, this is a tragedy, never again, and we don't have the sustained attention span to be able to get this done over the next several months, doesn't make sense."

Biden resurfaced in January with a predictable gun-control wishlist that included limits on gun magazine capacity, and a new, stronger ban on assault weapons to replace the one that expired under George W. Bush. These proposals didn't survive first contact with Congress. The only viable proposal to emerge from the Senate – an amendment co-sponsored by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey – would have mandated background checks for nearly all gun sales. The proposal was supported by 88 percent of gun-owning households, but was up against nearly $800,000 in NRA lobbying. It failed to clear the 60-vote filibuster hurdle, as five Democrats joined 41 Republicans to shoot it down. The gaping gun-show loophole – which allows as many as 40 percent of gun transactions to be completed without a background check – remains open.

HOPE: Obama Takes Executive Action

In tandem with his futile legislative push, President Obama announced a series of executive actions to reduce gun violence in January, including improving federal data-sharing to make existing background checks more robust, and ordering the Centers for Disease Control to renew research into gun violence and prevention. (This fall, the administration released this progress report, giving itself high grades.) In August, the administration also closed two loopholes administratively: one banning the re-import of surplus American military firearms, the other implementing background checks of straw corporations set up to purchase weapons by otherwise ineligible gun buyers.

HOPE: Colorado Passes Gun Control

In March, responding both to Newtown and its own 2012 gun massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado passed new gun restrictions to limit magazines to 15 rounds and mandate background checks on for all gun transactions, excluding antiques and family gifts.

The NRA was furious, accusing Governor John Hickenlooper of betraying Colorado's hunting heritage to get in good with an anti-gun East-Coast billionaire: "Governor Hickenlooper proved that he is only interested in pleasing Mayor Bloomberg and playing New York City politics," the organization wrote.

DESPAIR: South Dakota Arms Teachers

Answering NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre's dystopic call for armed personnel in elementary schools, South Dakota passed a new law enabling teachers to pack heat in the classroom. "People will see it's reasonable," said the law's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Scott Craig: "It's proactive."

HOPE: Connecticut Passes Gun Control

Newtown's state passed a raft of new gun legislation in April, leading the NRA to seethe about "backroom deal-making that betrayed the rights of responsible gun owners."

The new restrictions:

  • Mandate universal background checks
  • Create a gun-offender registry
  • Expand an existing list of 66 banned assault weapons to more than 100
  • Forbid sales of magazines over 10 bullets
  • Strengthen limits on gun ownership by those who've been involuntarily committed


DESPAIR: NRA Claims 5 Million Members

At the NRA national convention in Houston in May, LaPierre crowed that the gun group's membership rolls had surged to 5 million – up from a claimed 4 million in late 2012 – thanks to Lanza's killing spree and the subsequent background-check battle in the Senate.

HOPE: Maryland Passes Gun Control

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed new gun control measures in May that had the NRA spitting mad: "With a few pen strokes, O'Malley intends to scribble out the Second Amendment in Maryland," the gun group wrote.

The new Maryland restrictions:

  • Require fingerprinting of gun owners
  • Force handgun buyers to attend four hours of firearms training before receiving a state-issued license
  • Ban 45 types of assault weapons
  • Limit magazines to 10 bullets
  • Ban anyone involuntarily committed to a mental health facility from of gun ownership


HOPE: Delaware Passes Gun Control

In June, Delaware strengthened its gun-control laws to require universal background checks. A separate measure requires gun owners to report stolen weapons to the police – leading the NRA to rail that the legislature had "acted in a discriminatory fashion to punish and further victimize people who have experienced a loss of property."

HOPE: ATF Gets a Permanent Director

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, And Firearms, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal gun law, had – because of the sway of the NRA – been without a permanent director since the last years of the George W. Bush administration. In July, the Senate confirmed B. Todd Jones, previously ATF's part-time acting director, to helm the agency full time.

DESPAIR: Illinois Becomes Final State to Allow Concealed Guns

In July, the Illinois state legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto, passing legislation to permit concealed carry weapons in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois had been the last state in the union to outlaw hidden firearms.

HOPE: California Passes Gun Control

This fall, California's Democratic legislature strengthened what were already some of the strongest gun laws in the country, with new restrictions that ban conversion kits to create high-capacity magazines and require all gun buyers to obtain a firearms safety certificate.

DESPAIR: Governor Brown Vetoes Strongest Measures

During the decade between Columbine and Newtown, many Democrats burnished their credentials as moderates by dodging gun control. California Governor Jerry Brown demonstrated that the party may be reverting to form, vetoing what could have been the nation's strongest ban on assault weapons. The bill would have outlawed all semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines.

"I don't believe that this bill's blanket ban," Brown wrote, "would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners' rights." Brown also vetoed a measure requiring gun owners to report firearm thefts to police. The NRA praised its members for swaying Brown: "Without your help, the veto actions on some of the deeply flawed anti-gun bills may not have occurred."

DESPAIR: "Save the Gun" Law Passes in North Carolina

At the behest of the NRA, the Republican-dominated legislature of North Carolina passed a new law making it illegal to destroy guns used in the commission of a crime. The new law will force the state's police departments to sell off weapons that have already been used to murder and maim, returning them to the gun-buying public.

HOPE: Congress Reauthorizes Plastic Gun Ban

In the only federal gun safety bill to pass this year, Congress reauthorized the federal ban on undetectable firearms for another 10 years. The December legislation upholds a restriction that has been in place for a generation. However, the legislation does almost nothing to address the burgeoning threat of 3-D printed weapons.

DESPAIR: Counting The Dead

More than11,000 Americans have been killed in gun violence since Newtown, as documented in a project by Slate that relies on news coverage of the deaths. But gun violence in America is vastly underreported. According to projections by the Centers for Disease Control, the actual number, including suicides and gun deaths that never make the papers, is likely closer to 33,000 – or the equivalent carnage of 11 September 11ths.

DESPAIR: The Divestment that Didn't Happen

In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, Cerberus Capital Management made headlines by vowing to sell off Freedom Group, the massive guns-and-ammo concern that produces the Bushmaster AR-15, Lanza's weapon of choice. A year later, Cerberus has been unable or unwilling to unload Freedom Group. The equity firm announced this week that it will introduce an alternative mechanism to allow individual investors to divest from its gun holdings.

DESPAIR: Gun Profits Through the Roof

Meanwhile, Freedom Group itself is raking in the dough. In its latest financial report, the gunmaker projects annual sales of at least $1.25 billion, up from $932 million a year ago. Through three quarters, its gross profits were up nearly $128 million, year over year. Ruger has posted similarly gaudy results: Through the first three quarters of 2013, its sales soared to $506.4 million, up from $350.1 million in 2012, with gross profits up by $65 million, year over year.

DESPAIR: We Still Don't Know Why Lanza Did It

The official investigation into the Newtown massacre has brought to light intriguing and troubling details about the killer's life.

Lanza had an Asperger's diagnosis and was an ace at Dance Dance Revolution. He played violent video games including Call of Duty and a computer game called School Shooting, "where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students."Lanza was obsessed with Columbine and compiled a "spreadsheet listing mass murders by name and information about the incident." On the day of his killing spree, he weighed only 112 pounds.

But the biggest question remains a mystery, and it may always be one. The report concludes: "The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School."

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