NEWTOWN, Conn. — Six years ago this month, Mark Barden and Nicole Hockley watched from the gallery, counting the yeas, as the Senate voted on expanding background checks.
Four months had passed since his son, Daniel, and her son, Dylan, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and at no point in that time had they imagined the bill would fail. The assault weapons ban the Senate rejected the same day was one thing, but background checks seemed like “low-hanging fruit,” Ms. Hockley said.
The bill failed.
Afterward, standing by President Barack Obama at a news conference in the Rose Garden, Ms. Hockley focused all her energy on not bursting into tears. Mr. Barden looked at his wife, Jackie, and their two surviving children and thought: “I’ve failed you. Your country has failed you.”
To many people who thought the massacre of 20 first graders and six of their educators would fundamentally change the nation’s gun politics, the loss felt irrecoverable. But those votes in April 2013 turned out to be a beginning, not an end.
They led to new activism and organizations and fresh approaches to the gun control debate, and they helped motivate gun control advocates like Michael R. Bloomberg, who brought more money and visibility to the cause. Those groups, in turn, provided critical resources for the survivors, family members and activists galvanized by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018.
Now, as the National Rifle Association struggles with internal battles, gun issues figure prominently in presidential politics, and mass shootings like Saturday’s assault at a California synagogue continue on a regular basis, the influence of the Sandy Hook activism is a sharp reminder that federal inaction or setbacks on issues like guns are seldom a final word. Instead, progress on gun violence and other social issues is often a long, slow process that builds on failures as well as successes.
“There was logic to the idea that if Sandy Hook didn’t create an epiphany in this country, what will?” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, one of Congress’s most vocal proponents of stricter gun laws. “But that’s not how politics works. There are almost no epiphany moments in American politics. You have to build your power, and we had none of it.”
The families who fought for the 2013 legislation were stunned by its defeat. But “those of us who have experienced this kind of loss find a resolution or a resolve,” said David Wheeler, whose son Ben was killed at Sandy Hook. “Because what else can they take?”
As public attention faded, the families and organizations that had sprung up around gun issues changed their strategy. What started as a legislative campaign became an effort to build infrastructure for future fights.
The National Rifle Association had spent decades doing exactly that. Long before Sandy Hook, before Columbine, it was working tirelessly to accumulate influence in Washington.
There was some organizing on the other side: The group now called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was instrumental in passing the 1993 Brady Law, which instituted federal background checks, and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited some semiautomatic weapons. (The ban expired in 2004.) But Brady’s influence was dwarfed by the N.R.A.’s single-issue voters, millions of dollars in political spending and preternatural ability to mobilize.
That power imbalance changed because of Sandy Hook.
The shooting itself instantly spawned new organizations. Within hours, Shannon Watts, a mother of five in Indiana, went looking for a gun-related equivalent to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and found none. So she created a Facebook page, which ballooned into Moms Demand Action.
Meanwhile, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was almost killed by a gunman in 2011, was meeting with survivors in Newtown, helping prompt the creation of the group Sandy Hook Promise. Nationally, Ms. Giffords founded her own organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, intensifying her earlier advocacy.
“It was that day we realized we had to do more,” she said.
[Read more from a recent New York Times interview with Ms. Giffords.]
After April, the groups branched out. Po Murray, a Newtown resident, left Sandy Hook Promise to found the Newtown Action Alliance, which took an aggressive legislative approach focused on building support for an assault weapons ban, on the theory that less divisive policies would then follow more easily.
Sandy Hook Promise, led by Mr. Barden and Ms. Hockley, went in a different direction entirely, developing programs that would train students to recognize and report warning signs among classmates. (Those programs are now in place in 14,000 schools and have resulted in more than 3,000 tips, the group said. Some tips have led to arrests, including last month in Seymour, Conn.)
When the background checks bill failed, Ms. Watts briefly considered disbanding Moms Demand Action. Instead, she and the group decided to turn their focus to statehouses.
“Congress isn’t where this work begins. It’s more likely where it ends,” Ms. Watts said. “And we would have to build the momentum.”
Her group, which later joined with Mr. Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety, established a chapter in every state and began lobbying. Ms. Giffords’s group worked on state legislation, too, but also mobilized gun owners, many of whom support stricter laws.
The cumulative result was an infrastructure that had previously existed only on the conservative side of gun policy. And in the wake of the Parkland shootings, those new groups made a huge difference in terms of organizing.
Part of the relationship was financial: When the Parkland students organized the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, Everytown helped fund companion marches around the country. But the bigger part was structural: The groups founded after Sandy Hook funneled what might otherwise have been raw grief and rage into organized advocacy.
This was true not only for the students, but for individuals nationwide who were compelled to action by Parkland just as Ms. Watts was by Newtown. Before the Parkland shooting, Moms Demand Action had 296 local groups. By last month, it had 735.
America still has some of the Western world’s least restrictive gun laws. It has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and about 40 percent of its civilian gun ownership. Still, in terms of concrete legislative and electoral results, 2018 was a watershed.
States enacted more than three times as many gun control measures in 2018 as in 2017. In a major shift, gun control groups outspent the N.R.A. in the midterm elections. In October, Mr. Murphy identified eight close races where a Republican incumbent had an A rating from the N.R.A. and the Democratic challenger was running explicitly on gun restrictions; Democrats won all eight. Lucy McBath, who became a Moms Demand Action volunteer after her son, Jordan Davis, was shot, defeated another incumbent in a Republican district in Georgia.
The new Democratic House majority quickly introduced background check legislation, which became the first major gun control bill to clear either chamber of Congress in 25 years. Its prospects in the Senate are dim, but the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on other restrictions last month — and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and the committee chairman, announced that he was working on a bill to encourage so-called “red-flag laws” allowing the removal of firearms from people judged to pose an imminent threat.
Mr. Graham’s office did not respond to interview requests, but he told the South Carolina newspaper The State: “I think most Americans believe that multiple murderers shouldn’t have gun rights. Most Americans support background checks.”
In a remark that would have been nearly unthinkable from a top Republican a few years ago, he added, “The Second Amendment’s important to me, but it’s not a suicide pact.”
The N.R.A. vehemently denies its influence is waning, and there is no doubt it is still a significant force: Its favored candidates did particularly well in Florida in November, and three new states this year have enacted laws that allow residents to carry firearms without a permit or license. The group’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, argued that its support was “organic” and the other side’s manufactured by wealthy donors, and that public opinion had not shifted.
“It’s important not to confuse activity, paid phone calls, advertisements, increased activity on the gun control front there with actual support and votes,” she said.
There is substantial data showing support for tougher gun laws, however. According to Gallup, 61 percent of Americans want stricter laws on gun sales, up from 43 percent in October 2011, the last time Gallup asked the question before Newtown.
And while there is still a sharp partisan divide in Congress, with most Republicans supporting the N.R.A. and most Democrats opposing it, there are new cracks. Mr. Graham isn’t the only prominent Republican now on board with a red-flag bill; Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who received an A+ rating from the N.R.A. when he was last up for re-election in 2016, also introduced one.
Six years after they stood in the Rose Garden feeling that they had failed, Ms. Hockley and Mr. Barden said they had come to believe that, maybe, it was better that it happened this way.
“I will admit that there is a small part of me that is glad it didn’t pass in April 2013, because too many people could have said, ‘That’s it, job done, solved the problem,’” Ms. Hockley said. “That could have killed the movement.”