Newtown families push for gun control, go back to Congress

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), center, talks with Matthew Rousseau, left, Terri Rousseau, Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley and Neil Heslin, family members of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, on Capitol Hill.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Although the drive for tougher gun controls has faded into the background, families of victims in the Newtown school shooting returned to the Capitol on Wednesday to show they are not giving up.

Advocacy groups on both sides of the debate also are ramping up their campaigns, preparing for the Senate’s likely return to the issue after it completes work on the immigration overhaul bill.

Despite intense pressure from the families and gun control advocates, none of the senators who voted against a plan to expand the background check system has indicated he would change his vote.


“We’re not here to shame them. We’re here to see, where can we have some common ground,” Neil Heslin said during a meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Heslin’s 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was gunned down with 25 other people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.

A bipartisan plan by Manchin and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to require background checks for all commercial gun transactions — the centerpiece of a gun bill drafted in response to the Newtown massacre — fell five votes shy of being adopted in April.

The visit by the families to Washington for private and public lobbying efforts, which also included a meeting with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), is part of a renewed focus on the issue by both sides of the debate ahead of another potential vote.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg intends to send a letter this week to hundreds of Democratic donors in his state urging them to withhold support from four Democratic senators who voted no on the Manchin-Toomey amendment.

“It is usual practice for elected officials all over this country to make New York one of their first stops in scooping up donations for their campaigns, and Mayor Bloomberg thought it was important that donors in New York be made aware of the votes that senators took,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy advisor.

Manchin said he would not second-guess Bloomberg’s move, calling it “well-intended.” But he said he would prefer to see supporters of his measure “do something in more of an informational, educational, supportive role,” particularly in states like his with a strong gun culture.

Manchin said he had continued to speak with Senate colleagues to find ways to win their support, acknowledging that his proposal might need some changes.

Senate aides expect that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will call the proposal back up for consideration in July. Supporters of stricter gun laws hope that, even if the proposal fails again, it will spur the same outrage at town hall meetings that the vote in April did for Democratic and Republican senators who voted no.

“We know for a fact that senators have heard a lot about this when … they go home for recess from constituents who are still paying attention to this subject six months after it happened,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a Bloomberg-backed group that aims to counter the influence of the National Rifle Assn.

The NRA is also reengaging on the issue, launching a 30-second television ad in West Virginia that accuses Manchin of working with President Obama and Bloomberg to advance their “gun agenda.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who has led the Obama administration’s push for stricter gun laws, indicated that the outsize influence of two new tea-party-backed senators was also an obstacle.

Of nine Republican senators he’s lobbied, not one offered “an explanation on the merits of why they couldn’t vote for the background check,” he told Democratic donors Tuesday. “Almost to a person, they said, ‘I don’t want to take on Ted Cruz. I don’t want to take on Rand Paul,’” said Biden, referring to the Republican senators from Texas and Kentucky.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who acknowledged in the immediate aftermath of his vote against Manchin-Toomey that it took a political toll, said Wednesday that he was “comfortable with the position that [he has] taken.”

Democrats could lose ground in a new vote because of the death of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a longtime advocate of stricter gun laws. He was replaced by Jeffrey Chiesa, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican.

Democrats began courting Chiesa’s vote even before he was sworn in Monday. Reid noted that among the “remarkable things” Chiesa had done in his previous post as New Jersey attorney general was implementing “a successful gun buyback program that took 10,000 weapons off the streets, including 1,200 illegal guns.”

The Newtown families will continue their lobbying effort Thursday at a news conference with Reid, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and others. Also Thursday, the names of the nearly 5,000 victims of gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting will be read from the steps of the Capitol. Friday will mark six months since the massacre.

The families said they had hoped to see legislative action by now. But “the more time that goes by, in some respects, the stronger we’re getting and more comfortable in our voices,” said Nicole Hockley, mother of 6-year-old victim Dylan Hockley.

“It just strengthens our resolve,” she said.