WASHINGTON – The video montage opening the Brady Campaign’s conference on gun deaths Tuesday featured praise for Sarah and Jim Brady from leaders past and present.
“They have remained committed to improving the lives and the safety of their fellow Americans,” Bill Clinton says in his message.
But both Sarah and Jim Brady have died, and so is the idealistic movement for broad-based gun control that they championed. Sarah died this year; Jim, grievously injured in the Reagan assassination attempt, last year. Gun control has been moribund at the federal level since 1994 and lifeless since 2013, when even the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook couldn’t move Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, or to expand background checks.
So what is Dan Gross, who runs the Brady Campaign, so chirpy about?
“We have crossed the threshold,” Gross, whose brother was shot in the head 18 years ago, told his gathering of 200 activists. “Real change is in the air. And the tipping point for our issue has finally arrived.” On the screen appeared a cartoon of a fat guy in a National Rifle Association shirt toppling over, assault rifle in his arms. The crowd laughed.
Gross overstates the case. (Among his tipping-point evidence: supportive tweets from Kim Kardashian.) But there is some truth to what he says. From the legislative debacle following Sandy Hook, the gun-control movement has retreated to a limited but pragmatic approach. Gone is the notion of “gun control,” replaced by “reducing gun deaths” or “gun violence prevention.” Gone, for now, are efforts to restrict any type of gun or ammunition. Instead, the movement has found a laser focus on background checks.
The movement’s second-generation aim makes sense. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that only 46 percent think new laws to reduce gun violence are more important than protecting gun rights – down from 52 percent in 2013. But upward of 85 percent of Americans support expanding background checks for the four in 10 gun sales that occur online or at gun shows. The movement, with its narrower focus, is better-funded than ever.
“It’s the right place to be because it’s not about keeping certain guns away from all people,” Gross told me. “It’s about keeping all guns away from certain people” – such as felons and wife beaters.
This approach, also pursued by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions and others, follows the state-by-state playbook of the same-sex marriage movement. The emphasis is less on lobbying and more on elections and ballot initiatives. Since Sandy Hook, six states – Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, Washington and Oregon – have expanded background checks, and at least two more – Nevada and Maine – will have ballot initiatives next year. Advocates claim that domestic killings of women have been cut nearly in half in states that have checks for private gun sales.
It’s worth noting that the NRA hasn’t fought background-check initiatives with any enthusiasm. Either the group is returning to its earlier support for background checks, or it sees steep odds in defeating the popular initiatives.
The NRA maintains its stranglehold over Congress, where lawmakers who fear the group’s (overstated) power have even blocked federal funds from going to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence, and have discouraged the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from cracking down on the 5 percent of gun dealers that, advocates say, sell nearly 90 percent of the guns used in crimes.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have talked about reviving their failed bill on background checks, but skittish Senate Democrats, rather than forcing a vote, issued a statement this month merely asking people “to push their congressional representatives” on the issue.
So it will probably be a long time before there’s a slowing of the march of victims and families across stages like the one at the Brady Campaign conference. “She was young, she was beautiful, she was in love,” Barbara Parker, with red eyes, said of her daughter Alison, the Roanoke, Va., reporter killed on live TV in August. “Ten days ago, we sprinkled her ashes in the Nantahala River. We still cry.”
The tears will keep coming, as more are gunned down. But at least those formerly known as gun-control activists, having lowered their sights, have found a way to revitalize the movement. Said the Brady Campaign’s Gross: “We’re not alone in the wilderness anymore.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.