POLITICS
12/13/2013 07:34 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Newtown Didn't Change Lawmakers' Opinions On Gun Control, It Hardened Them

WASHINGTON -- It's been a year since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that left 20 first-graders and six staff dead, which means it's been a year of congressional inaction in response to one of the most horrific mass shootings in U.S. history.

The political arguments for and against new laws have been rehashed for months. Republicans, by and large, throw up a wall to any new gun control measures, warning they would infringe on a person's constitutional right to bear arms. Democrats, meanwhile, plead for action on items like tighter background checks on gun sales. Gridlock transpires, momentum is lost, lawmakers move on.

But what about on a more personal level? Does the constant wave of mass violence -- the Aurora, Colo. theater shootings; the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shootings; the Tucson, Ariz. shootings that nearly took the life of former Rep. Gabby Giffords; and, obviously, the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Conn. -- affect mindsets, even if it doesn't change politics?

The Huffington Post talked to a random sampling of 16 lawmakers, in both parties and both chambers, to see if they view gun violence through a different lens since the nation was shaken by the Sandy Hook shootings. In each case, we asked them the same question: It's been a year since Newtown. How has your view of gun violence in America changed since then?

It turns out that most politicians' views haven’t changed at all. If anything, Sandy Hook and its fallout only hardened pre-existing beliefs.

Republicans interviewed for this piece said gun violence is a sad reality in today’s world and that the best solution is more guns for the purposes of self-defense and stricter enforcement of the laws on the books.

"I think the lesson for me from Newtown is, what if you'd had armed policemen there?" said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

"Nobody is happy about gun violence. The answer is not to restrict Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). "We need stronger enforcement of current laws."

Democrats, by contrast, said Newtown underscored that's it's long past time to act on gun violence, but said it's out of their hands as long as the National Rifle Association keeps its grip on Republicans and conservative members of their own party.

"My views haven’t changed, but one has been completely reaffirmed: If there is not a permanent grassroots movement in favor of gun safety that is competitive with the NRA, nothing is ever going to change," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.).

"What has changed is sort of my sense, as a member of Congress, my sense of helplessness," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Grijalva said he'll "still rally and get up there" to urge people to do something, anything, to help stem gun violence. But his belief that lawmakers will do anything meaningful has waned.

"Knowing the characters we're dealing with, including Democrats ...," he said, trailing off as he threw his arms in the air. "Well?"

Indeed, some Democrats vented frustrations with their own party for not doing more to keep the issue on the front burner. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) noted that when House Democrats were the majority, Republicans regularly used procedural maneuvers to force floor votes on gun issues. There are also ways Democrats could be using procedural rules to force gun-related votes during committee hearings, but that hasn’t been happening either.

"I don't see the Democrats making the same effort, forcing votes on gun safety," Grayson said. "We ended up losing out on D.C voting representation because the Republicans [forced a procedural motion] on gun safety. Why aren't we doing things like that?"

For lawmakers confronted with mass shootings at home, gun violence has ceased being just a policy debate. The loss of lives amounts to a hole blown through their communities.

"I advocated gun violence prevention when I was in my first days as attorney general ... I approached it before as a law enforcement official," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "I think Newtown deepened the passion and the personal feeling. It's a personal connection, almost like a loved one being a victim."

"Our state had the Aurora shootings, and Columbine. So that was close to home," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). "It's stark examples of evil when you have incidents like that."

Several Republicans said Newtown didn't change their views on gun violence as much as it cemented in their minds that mental illness is the root cause of it.

"You go back to Columbine or the Aurora theater, it’s almost always somebody that’s mentally unstable," said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.). "We need to be able to recognize and treat that before things happen like they did at Sandy Hook."

"There’s an awareness of the mental health component now," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). "I think there’s always a commitment from me [to act]. I’m a mom, a grandmom, a room mother from school!"

"I'm more convinced than ever we’ve got to focus on mental health issues," said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa).

Asked, though, if he could see his GOP colleagues passing legislation to strengthen mental health education and treatment, Latham said, with a blank look: "I don't know."

Perhaps the lawmaker whose views have come the furthest since Newtown is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). A proud gun owner with an "A" rating from the NRA, the former West Virginia governor made headlines in 2010 for releasing a campaign video where he literally shot a rifle at cap-and-trade legislation. But the Sandy Hook shootings were "a game changer" for him, in his words, and early this year he fought hard to pass legislation to tighten background checks. The bill ultimately failed to advance, but the NRA ran an ad against him anyway.

"I think basically what I’ve found out more than anything, the dysfunction that we have here has proven a lack of confidence in government," Manchin said. "Coming from gun states, knowing people like myself will defend the Second Amendment, yet having people that basically are just scared -- even though it makes so much sense -- scared that the government won't stop there."

Speaking quietly, he added, "My thoughts and prayers are with these families and the loved ones and the little babies they lost."

While many inside Congress are holding on to the same views they had before Newtown, people outside of it are not. At the height of the Senate debate on Manchin’s bill, public support for stronger background checks soared past 90 percent. Support is still high, though a recent HuffPost poll found that it has ticked down to 77 percent. Three new gun control groups -- Americans for Responsible Solutions, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America -- came onto the scene, creating, for the first time, a faction with millions to spend to rival the NRA in the 2014 elections.

Proponents of gun control say it will ultimately take the changing views of the public, and not another horrific school shooting or massacre in a movie theater, to force legislative action on gun violence.

"I don't remember before the consensus that we see now [for action on background checks]," Grayson said. "It's becoming harder and harder for the diehards against gun safety to make their case in the face of public opinion."

"It isn't going to change until there's an agitated group of parents of first graders who don’t want their kids shot at school," Andrews added.

"It comes down to that."

Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.

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