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Close call sparks fears of another Newtown

Less than a year after the Sandy Hook massacre, threats at another school revived fears. But gun control legislation still faces powerful political obstacles.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Less than a year after the Sandy Hook massacre, threats at another school revived fears. But gun control legislation still faces powerful political obstacles.

Laterrica Luther, right, holds the hand of her six year-old nephew Jaden Culpepper, as students from Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy arrive on school buses to waiting loved ones in a Walmart parking lot after they were evacuated when a gunman entered the school, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Decatur, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

Many Americans felt an all-too familiar shudder of fear on Tuesday: Oh no, another school shooting.

Images of students fleeing from their school, SWAT team members bounding into action, and parents embracing their bewildered children appeared on television, as the words “gunman,” “elementary school,” and “shots fired” flashed across the screen.

No one was injured Tuesday when a young man walked into the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, armed with an AK-47 style assault rifle and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition. The suspect shot at police officers before peacefully surrendering in a scene that revived memories from eight months ago, when a different 20-year-old broke into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people.

“It is frighteningly similar,” said Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed in the Newtown massacre, on the Today show Wednesday. “I just feel so, so deeply for those parents and those children who had to endure that horrific scenario. We’re just so thankful that everybody emerged okay from that.”

Less than a year has passed since Newtown, and the first day of school now means something profoundly different. For another shooting scare to happen in just the first few days of classes is nothing short of a nightmare. But it’s one that gun control advocates hope will breathe new urgency into their efforts to prevent gun violence.

“In the last two years alone, there’ve been over 200 classrooms full of kids, in essence, children and teens that have been killed by gun violence,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on MSNBC Wednesday. “We have to realize that this issue goes beyond the sensational tragedies, which are extraordinary tragedies, to impact all of us everyday. The really encouraging thing is that the American public is really starting to make its voice heard.”

At the start of his second term, President Obama added gun violence prevention to a host of issues already on his ambitious agenda. Following Newtown, he backed a set of initiatives including closing background check loopholes, banning military-style assault weapons, improving school safety, and increasing access to mental health care. And after the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter last month in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the president spoke out against “Stand Your Ground” legislation, saying it was time to “examine some state and local laws.”

In the months since lawmakers in April voted against a bipartisan amendment that would have made it more difficult to purchase firearms on the Internet, gun control groups have maintained their pressure on Congress. On Wednesday, a day after the Georgia shooting, the White House lobbying arm, Organizing for Action, held rallies in several cities as part of what the group dubbed “a national Day of Action,” urging Congress to pass legislation toward gun safety and violence prevention. Also this week, nearly 90 Ohio mayors co-signed a letter to Sen. Rob Portman’s office pushing for the Republican to reconsider his opposition to background checks for all gun purchases. The leaders who sent the letter belong to the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is currently sponsoring a 100-day nationwide bus tour to promote gun control laws.

At the same time, groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence are pressuring lawmakers to repeal controversial “Stand Your Ground” legislation as part of their effort to reduce shooting deaths.

The power of the gun lobby is not lost on advocates for reform. In Colorado, two state senators who supported gun control measures are now facing a National Rifle Association-backed recall vote. And last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation that would have banned .50-caliber rifles, arguing that the measure wouldn’t have made the state any safer.

Kristin Wald, co-leader of the New Jersey Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that Christie had “put politics over safety.”

Despite these setbacks, gun control advocates remain confident.

“The momentum is definitely on the side of those of us who seek common sense to end gun violence in our country,” said Gross on Wednesday. “Colorado is definitely a tragic development. And really, the thing that all the tragic developments have in common are when the corporate gun lobby gets it voice heard over the voice of the American public.”

According to an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 55% of Americans felt laws governing the sale of firearms should be made more strict, compared with 34% who believed they should stay the same. That poll was taken the same month a bipartisan bill expanding background checks failed in the Senate on a 54-46 vote. While that may have looked like a failure, Gross insists it galvanized the movement for gun control.

“The reality is that that was a tremendous step forward because it exposed to the American public the extent to which our will and our safety is being undermined by the people that we’ve sent to Congress,” he said. “The level of anger and outrage that we’ve seen since that vote, the level of engagement that we’ve seen from hundreds of thousands of supporters, is a tremendous step forward.”