The Newtown tragedy in December seemed to upend the typical narrative that had followed previous mass shootings in America: A gunman mows down innocent victims, a significant slice of Americans lament the laxness of firearm regulation, lawmakers shrug and move on. The death of 20 children galvanized gun control advocates like nothing since Columbine. The NRA, with its tone-deaf response, was playing defense for the first time since anyone could remember. President Barack Obama delivered a soaring speech promising his full devotion to gun control, an issue that had previously not registered on his second-term agenda.
On a federal level, of course, all that talk came to almost nothing. The only piece of legislation that had any chance of passing, a bill to make background checks universal, died in the Senate back in April -- despite the support of almost 90 percent of Americans.
And after the Sept. 16 Navy Yard massacre that left 13 dead including the gunman, the old narrative was back in full force. Almost immediately, lawmakers declared any further action on gun control all but impossible. Journalists, meanwhile, wondered why the shooting failed to strike a chord with the American public the way Newtown, Aurora, or Virginia Tech had done, raising the prospect that Americans have become so inured to mass slaughter that they've given up on outrage.
But Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that measuring change based on responses to the latest mass shooting is missing the point. "Our whole goal is to break the cycle where our collective desire for policy change is driven by high-profile national tragedies," he said.
Despite the media coverage saying Americans may have accepted mass shootings as a fact of life, gun control advocates expressed optimism that they are making real progress -- slowly but surely. They pointed to several small victories and incremental steps countering the notion that the NRA and like-minded organizations are invincible.
"You have to fight these battles inch by inch," said Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who works on gun policy.
Viewed one way, 2013 has been a rousing success for gun control backers. Maryland, New York, Connecticut and Colorado all enacted tougher laws in the wake of Newtown. Two staunchly pro-gun senators, Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), sponsored a bill that the NRA opposed, a development that would have seemed impossible a year earlier.
On the other hand, the backlash to such progress has been significant. More than 20 states have passed pro-gun legislation this year, from South Dakota allowing teachers to carry guns to Iowa granting gun permits to blind people. In July, Illinois became the last state in the union to permit concealed guns in public.
And last week, the NRA won a major victory when two Colorado state senators were recalled from office after supporting stricter gun regulations in the state. The recall election had become a proxy fight between the NRA and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group funded in large part by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Gross claimed that the Colorado vote wasn't representative. "There's a desire on the part of the media to say that we've lost momentum," he said. "What really happened in Colorado is that the gun lobby was able to create the ideal conditions to suppress the voice of the overwhelming majority of Americans who support these laws."
Other advocates pointed to changes in the broader culture. This week, Starbucks announced that it would request customers to leave their guns at home, after controversy arose over its previous policy to abide by local firearm laws, including "open carry" laws that allow guns in stores.
For a "worldwide business icon like Starbucks to say 'guns are not welcome in our stores anymore' is a sea change," said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action.
In terms of federal legislation, prospects look bleak. But Monte Frank, a spokesman for Newtown Action Alliance, a grassroots organization formed in the wake of the December massacre, said there was "cause for optimism" after Newtown families met with lawmakers in Washington last week. (The timing, in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings, was coincidental.)
The current dysfunction of Congress is actually heartening to some advocates. "We're working in a Congress right now where nothing passes," Gerney said, emphasizing that 54 votes on a divisive issue -- the number the background check vote received back in April -- was cause for optimism. "The movement for stronger gun laws today is enormously stronger than it was the day before the Newtown shootings."
Keeping that momentum up nationally will be difficult. A Gallup survey released on Friday showed that more Americans blame the country's mental health system for mass shootings than easy access to guns. The percentage blaming guns dropped by six points from a poll taken shortly after Gabrielle Giffords, then an Arizona congresswoman, was shot in the head in January 2011.
A week after the Navy Yard shootings, Obama gave a heartfelt speech mourning the victims, and deploring the lack of will to change America's gun laws. "Our tears are not enough," he said. "Our words and our prayers are not enough."
"If we really want to honor these 12 men and women, if we really want to be a country where we can go to work and go to school and walk our streets free from senseless violence without so many lives being stolen by a bullet from a gun, then we're going to have to change," Obama said.
The next step forward, though, is uncertain. Mayors Against Illegal Guns is hoping to strengthen more state laws in the months ahead, while Gross is hoping for another vote on universal background checks, timed to the first anniversary of the Newtown shooting. He brushed away any notion that the push to alter the status quo on guns is a quixotic one. "Things are not going to change overnight," he said. "We are not feeling defeated or deflated."