CRIME
06/15/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

Newtown Families Leave Washington Frustrated, Hopeful After Background Checks Push

Jennifer Bendery

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this week, a group of friends and families of the Newtown, Conn. shooting victims piled into a bus and made the six-hour trek to Washington, D.C., to give the stalled background checks legislation a push.

The timing of their trip was intentional: Friday marked six months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre, and Newtown residents wanted to mark the anniversary by making sure Congress didn't forget what happened -- and what can be done to prevent more gun-related tragedies. For days, they held public demonstrations on the Capitol lawn, gathered with Democratic leaders at press events and hand-delivered letters to lawmakers signed by 80 gun safety organizations representing more than 10 million Americans in support of background checks legislation. They had private meetings with nearly two-dozen lawmakers still undecided on whether to support the background checks bill, and some even landed a meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

But as they prepared to head home on Thursday, some felt badly at the way they were received by lawmakers who remain opposed to background checks legislation. And they were ready to name names.

"The worst was a staffer for Sen. Flake. It was not good," said Sarah Clements, 17, the teen chairwoman for the Newtown Action Alliance whose mom is a teacher at Sandy Hook. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is regularly cited as someone who may be willing to support the gun bill, despite his vote against it in April.

"Basically, he hasn't changed at all. We expected there to be a little bit of movement, especially after his polling numbers got so low," Clements said, referring to Flake's popularity sinking after his gun vote. At one point, she said she tussled with Flake's staffer over the staffer's claim that the vast majority of people in Arizona don't support tighter background checks. "We proved to her that isn't true," Clements said. "She just didn't move on that."

Clements noted that she is one of several Newtown teenagers who came to Washington because they are "very close" to those impacted by the shootings and have "very compelling stories" that highlight the need for Congress to act.

"[Flake's staffer] is the one person that didn't even change after we told our stories," she said. "It was very hard to hear."

Po Murray, one of the leaders of Newtown Action Alliance, said the group's meeting with Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) was especially frustrating out of the 20 or so meetings the group had with lawmakers who still had not signed onto the bill. She said Holt told the group he strongly supports gun control but won't cosponsor the bill because it doesn't create a gun registry, something he said his state has. Notably, several lawmakers initially wouldn't support the bill precisely out of concerns that it would create a registry, but to ease their concerns, the bill now explicitly states that it will not.

"That's why he won't cosponsor this?" Murray said of Holt. "Then he said if it went to a vote, though, he would vote for it. So I'm like, what?"

Clements also remembered the meeting with Holt as one of the least pleasant.

"You should have seen me in Rush Holt's office," she said. "I was getting so frustrated. He kept contradicting himself so much, I kept pointing it out to him ... He kept interrupting us as well. That was not fun."

Requests for comment from Flake's and Holt's offices were not immediately returned.

Not that the meetings were all bad. Gina McDade, also in the Newtown group, listed some lawmakers who she said at least seemed to hear their position, even if they did not outright support it. Those members or members' staffers included Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Gene Green (D-Texas), John Barrow (D-Ga.), John Dingell (D-Mich.), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

"Pretty noncommittal," McDade said of her overall take on lawmakers' responses to the group.

She gave credit to some lawmakers for at least being straightforward about why they aren't supporting the bill. She said a staffer for Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.), for one, told her, "I'll be honest with you: It's the NRA. We're dealing with the concealed-carry laws right now, which they're begging for us to pass."

McDade said that position "is not acceptable, but at least he was honest. I'd rather that then them lie to us and say, 'I haven't read the bill.'"

A request for comment from Enyart's office was not immediately returned.

In the two months since the Senate background checks bill failed, lawmakers have been scrambling to find the extra five votes needed to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to move it forward. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said during a Thursday press event that he's been reaching out "to everyone" he can to get there, and suggested that even if he can round up two or three, Democratic leaders may be willing to put the bill on the floor again.

"If we're that close, we may want to bring it up in the hopes that those last couple of votes may come in the immediacy of the action," Blumenthal said.

At the same press event, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said at least one GOP senator has been privately signaling support for the background checks bill this time around. He was mum on details.

"We've been doing well with more than one Republican," Reid said.

For this week, though, House and Senate proponents of the bill were happy to yield attention to the Newtown families. They fumed at the news that some of their colleagues, who remained nameless, were closing their doors to the families of gun violence victims trying to meet with them.

"I can't talk about who it was," Blumenthal said. "But there are senators, some of them very well known, who have said they will not meet. I think that refusal is unconscionable."

Those lawmakers should "have the guts to take a meeting" with Newtown families, said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

None of the Newtown Action Alliance members interviewed by HuffPost could point to an instance where a lawmaker said flat-out that they wouldn't meet with them. But they did name some lawmakers who said they had scheduling conflicts or were too busy to meet. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) canceled their meeting because of a scheduling mix-up, though he did meet with another Newtown group in town, Sandy Hook Promise. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told them she was too busy, and Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas) canceled their meeting.

An Ayotte spokesman responded that the senator had previously met with Newtown families in Washington. A request for comment from Gallego's office was not immediately returned.

As Clements was preparing to head home on Thursday, walking across the Capitol lawn with dozens of others wearing matching green Sandy Hook T-shirts, she said despite the bumps over the past few days, she thinks the group's efforts had an effect on lawmakers.

"It's frustrating when you get out of those meetings and you don't see movement. But what we have to realize is we're planting seeds," she said. "Even if this takes a long time, we're planting seeds. That’s what I continue to think about."

She may not have realized it, but there was movement as she spoke: Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) added his name to the House background checks bill on Thursday. The bill now has 181 cosponsors.

UPDATE: Sunday, 5 p.m. -- Another member of the Newtown group emailed HuffPost to say that Gallego ended up rescheduling his meeting and said he was very "conscientious" and "welcoming."

"Though we clearly do not have his vote on supporting background checks at this time, his personal feelings left us hopeful that as public opinion in his district turns or becomes louder in favor of background checks, he could reconsider," said Erin Nikitchyuk, a Newtown mom whose son was in the hall of Sandy Hook Elementary School when the shooter broke in. Her son was later pulled into a classroom by a teacher.

Nikitchyuk also noted that she had a meeting with a staffer for Holt that was positive. She said the staffer welcomed her group into Holt's office and that they had a long and productive talk.

"I don't know that we really changed any minds firmly, but I think we did make a dent in the resolve in some cases," Nikitchyuk said. "We all would love to have had someone say to us, 'Oh my! Now that I'm talking to you and really thinking about it, of course I'm going to vote to support it,' but we know better than to hope for that, and if it does happen, we know better than to believe it until we see it."

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Newtown Families Storm Capitol Hill
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Newtown Families Storm Capitol Hill

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