As my plane from California touched down at Dulles International Airport on December 14, 2012, my fellow passengers and I turned on our cell phones. Almost in unison, the plane filled with audible gasps, wails, and sobs. While we were in flight, a gunman had killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty of the victims were children ― precious six and seven year olds. Even after decades of working in gun violence prevention, it was unlike any high-profile shooting I’d ever seen. I walked off the plane in a daze.
Four months later, after tireless lobbying on Capitol Hill, I watched the final Senate debate on a bipartisan background check bill. I cursed each time a senator said he or she could not support the bill for one inane reason or another. As the final roll call was tallied, I felt dispirited but not hopeless. While I did question our elected officials’ collective moral compass, I felt that a major cultural change was about to take place.
Still, in the months following the failed background check vote, it seemed most people, especially in the political class and the media, perpetuated a cynical concept:
“If nothing changed after 20 children were killed, change will never happen.”
But the ground was shifting. I could feel it in the immediate aftermath of the vote. Instead of giving up, gun violence prevention activists became even more committed and energized. We took the failed vote as an opportunity to galvanize our movement. And it worked.
New gun violence prevention groups began to coalesce, and millions of new activists began to get involved. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary and the failed Senate vote were not the culmination of America’s gun violence debate; both events helped lay the foundation for a movement that continues to make incredible progress. People were heartbroken at the senseless deaths of 20 young children, and people were furious at a political class that had betrayed them. Motivated by both sadness and anger, people were determined to change the politics through consistent activism and organizing.
Despite this explosive energy, five years after the massacre, I hear the same cynicism from political pundits: “Nothing has changed after Sandy Hook or Orlando or Las Vegas. If nothing has changed yet, it will never happen.”
I understand the frustration they feel. I felt it on that day in December 2012, and I felt it after the failed Senate vote. To this day, I feel frustrated, heartbroken, and angry after each horrific mass shooting ― and each shooting that doesn’t make headlines. I grieve for the victims and their families. But despite this sadness, I refuse to give in to cynicism. Because now, five years after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I can say with certainty that there has been a seismic shift in our movement and in our nation. I have spent three decades in this field, and the last five years have been among the most productive I have ever witnessed. There is hope for change because significant change has already happened. Pundits who deny this progress are not doing their homework. The idea that nothing has changed since Sandy Hook is false. Period.
Change isn’t always as flashy as a dramatic Senate floor vote in Washington. It happens gradually, methodically, and locally. Contrary to popular belief, we have seen significant legislative victories in gun violence prevention. Such victories are often easy to overlook because they are happening in statehouses or at ballot boxes in state elections ― directly in the hands of voters rather than in the hands of inept federal legislators. Too many people have had their eyes on our frustrating and polarized Congress; looking at progress in the states is much more inspiring. Watching the shift there foretells the larger change to come.
Unlike Congress, following Sandy Hook, state legislatures and governors got to work. Since 2012, numerous states have passed laws creating universal background check systems, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and protecting victims of domestic violence from armed abusers.
Additionally, since 2014, Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws have been enacted in California and Oregon through the legislative process and enacted by referendum in Washington state. ERPO laws allow family members and/or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from those in crisis. This past legislative session, ERPO was introduced in approximately 20 states, including historically “gun-friendly” states like Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. These victories would not have happened in 2011. This is what change looks like.
In addition to the legislative victories we have seen at the state level, there has also been a marked political shift regarding gun violence prevention. Politicians ― especially Democrats ― used to shy away from gun violence prevention. Some pundits and publications characterized this reticence as a “Democratic duck” on guns. After Sandy Hook, that changed. Democrats are no longer ducking the issue of gun violence prevention. They are talking about it openly. They are running on it. They are willing to filibuster and break parliamentary norms to draw attention to it.
Though it is difficult to recall, even President Barack Obama avoided the gun issue during his 2012 campaign. He was uncomfortable with the topic. But roughly a month after the 2012 election, that changed. President Obama spoke to the press about the unthinkable massacre at Sandy Hook. I watched as he wiped away tears and vowed to address the issue. After that day, Obama became a staunch and vocal advocate for the cause, using the bully pulpit and urging Congress to act.
In 2016, Obama announced that he would not support or campaign for any candidate who did not support gun violence prevention measures. In essence, Obama branded himself a single-issue voter on guns ― an unprecedented stance for a sitting president. It is not an exaggeration to say that Obama’s shift on this issue empowered Democratic candidates ― both present and future ― to discuss guns and make gun violence prevention a major issue in their campaigns.
The 2016 Democratic primary demonstrated this shift. A popular candidate among progressives, Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders struggled to explain his previous support of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) and his vote against the Brady Bill. Progressives grilled Sanders, pressuring him to change his position on gun-related issues. This type of scrutiny was not typical of previous primaries.
By 2016, the political ground had shifted, largely because the electorate’s opinion on the issue had evolved. Recent polls confirm that the overwhelming majority of Americans ― including gun owners ― support stronger gun laws. Gun violence prevention is a winning issue.
Indeed, just last month, Virginia Democrats who made gun violence prevention a priority in their respective campaigns swept the state elections. Virginia voters ranked gun violence prevention as the second most important issue when considering their choices. The champions of gun violence prevention won big in the NRA’s home state.
At a victory party for now-Governor-Elect Ralph Northam, I marveled that a man who had protested in front of the NRA headquarters just weeks before the election, who made gun violence prevention a cornerstone of his campaign, won so handily in Virginia. Reflecting on my decades in this field, our political progress had never been so clear.
December 14 will always be a difficult day for our country. Though we cannot possibly understand the depth of their pain, we grieve with the families whose children and loved ones were killed on that day in 2012. It is hard to believe five years have passed since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And yet, it is hard to believe only five years have passed.
In five years, the gun violence prevention movement has honored the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting with endless energy and strategic, robust action. In statehouses, at ballot boxes, on stages at campaign rallies, in towns across America, we have made enormous progress since December 14, 2012. If we are stymied at the federal level, we will work in the states. We will create a domino effect, passing commonsense legislation in one state, then another, then another. We will organize. We will tell the NRA their time is up. We are already witnessing a sea change.
When we hear our friends and pundits say, “If nothing changed after Sandy Hook, change will never happen,” we must challenge them. We must challenge that cynical mindset, as cynicism is the enemy of progress. Our movement is growing. Our policies are more popular than ever. And our grassroots advocates are powerful and determined. Change has happened since Sandy Hook, and change continues to happen each day. If we look closer, past Washington and its dysfunction, we have many reasons to be hopeful. And we have many reasons to continue fighting: the lives we have to save.