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Almost a year after Newtown, does anyone care about gun control anymore?

Gun-rights advocates gather outside the Utah Capitol during the National Gun Appreciation Day Rally Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
Gun-rights advocates gather outside the Utah Capitol during the National Gun Appreciation Day Rally Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer / AP file

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, gun control was ground zero in American politics, captivating the public and politicos alike. It flared again late last month after a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.

But now, as the first anniversary of Newtown approaches, the forces for gun control have little to celebrate, a lot to mourn and scant hope of change in the near term. On the front lines, activists say they are demoralized and adrift, the movement fraying at the roots as its leaders struggle to reignite a fading national moment for change.

“It’s not going well at all,” says Sally Christ, 56, a donor to Americans for Responsible Solutions, a major gun-control lobby launched this year by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Two months ago, she and other supporters celebrated on the waterfront in Portland, Maine, noshing on lobster and looking toward a strong push for gun reform legislation this fall—a push that hasn’t materialized and, thanks to Obamacare and Congress, probably won’t.

“There are some little bits and pieces,” says Christ, a former public health educator. But “it’s not like getting people to quit smoking. It’s not sexy.”  

That’s a stark change from almost a year ago.  A troubled young man had just killed 20 students and six adult staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, opening fire with a semi-automatic arsenal. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting was bloodier, but Newtown and its young victims struck a special nerve. President Obama pledged to put “everything I’ve got” behind reforms, proposing the broadest gun control legislation in decades, and the groundswell of public support doubled the size of the two largest gun control lobbies in America, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

It also gave rise to a third lobby: Americans for Responsible Solutions. Giffords pitched the group as a counterbalance to the National Rifle Association, one with “millions” of supporters and cash to match the clout of the opposition. “Legislators will no longer have reason to fear the gun lobby,” she promised in an editorial announcing the organization. “Fight, fight, fight” she added in a poignant stump speech over the summer, her words slurred by the path of an assassin’s bullet she survived in 2011.

But this seemingly unbeatable political coalition—three deep-pocketed groups, allied with a sitting president, seemingly aligned with a huge majority of Americans—enters the fall on a low ebb that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. “It’s not important enough, sadly,” says Johnathan Abbinett, 60, a founding member of the Nevada chapter of Americans for Responsible solutions. His chapter colleague Christian Gerlach, 26, isn’t even sure the chapter exists any more. “I only went to that first meeting,” he says, before changing the subject. “I’m actually getting ready for Obamacare. I’m a coordinator.”

'It's like a sugar rush'

In interviews with leaders of the Big Three, as well as more than half a dozen members of Americans for Responsible Solutions—all of them prior volunteers of time or money—a picture emerged of a movement at a dangerous crossroads.

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, accompanied by her husband, retired astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, speaks during a news conference at the Millyard Museum, Friday, July 5, 2013, in Manchester, N.H.
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, accompanied by her husband, retired astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, speaks during a news conference at the Millyard Museum, Friday, July 5, 2013, in Manchester, N.H.Mary Schwalm / AP file

At a glance the effort to avert another mass shooting has never been stronger. Giffords’ so-called Super PAC raised $6.6 million in the first half of 2013, more than any other, and its organizing arm recruited half a million new members. All told, the lobbying effort of the gun control side is on pace to spend more than it did after the Columbine shootings in 1999, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.

But the pro-gun side has grown even more, the CRP data shows. It has added popular no-compromise groups, such as Gun Owners of America, and maintained a nine-to-one spending advantage on Hill. The NRA alone has outspent the Big Three in 2013, stoking members with an ad campaign built around the need to “stand and fight” Washington regulators. It says a million new people signed up in the first 9 months of the year, bringing the NRA rolls to 5 million strong, more than double what the Big Three muster combined.

“Our growth is unprecedented,” NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre announced at the group’s annual meeting in May. “By the time we’re finished, the NRA must and will be 10 million strong.”

Such lopsided growth mirrors what happened after the Columbine massacre. The Senate failed to pass a bill requiring universal background checks, among other popular reforms, and the gun control movement was swallowed by a wave of gun rights activism. It spent the next decade in the wilderness, starved of funding and support as the NRA won victory after victory.

This time—after the failure of a similar background check bill in April, and the recall of two pro-reform politicians in Colorado last month—the mission has narrowed to a single overarching goal: maintain the momentum. “It’s like a sugar rush,” says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, of the cycle of public concern after a major shooting. “It seems like we have intensity—there’s sympathy, there’s outrage—but that intensity proves to be transitory.”

Exactly why is a bit of a mystery, but veteran activists point to an intensity gap.

The nation’s private firearms are in the hands of just 20 percent of the population, a wedge defined by those who own numerous weapons and feel safer as a result. For years, polls from NBC have shown super majority support for what gun control advocates call “sensible reforms,” from background checks to limits on commando-style assault weapons. But when such reforms come up for a vote, guess who makes the most political noise? Not the side that uses words like “sensible” and “common sense.” As Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign puts it: “Common sense is not an intense emotion.” 

Protesters at reform rally arrive 'full battle rattle'

The Big Three are trying to make it one. That’s why, in late June and early July, Team Giffords—which includes Gabby, her husband Mark Kelly, her service dog Nelson, and a phalanx of operatives—toured seven states in seven days. Toting a suitcase of their own firearms, they preached “gun responsibilities,” and tried to engage hardline locals and gun rights politicians. At the same time, Mayors Against Illegal Guns ran a 100-day, 25-state summer bus tour, calling for an end to gun violence.

But the results of both tours were mixed at best. In state after state, major politicians ducked Giffords and Kelly, despite (or perhaps because of) ample advance notice of their arrival.  In Alaska, Mark Begich, one of four Democrats who voted against closing the gun show loophole, was said to be vacationing on an island without cell service when the tour arrived. In North Dakota, “friends in the NRA” forced a last minute venue change, according to a Team Giffords advance man, who himself declined to be named for fear of mixing with gun-grabbers from Washington. And when members of MAIG arrived in Fargo, the mayor told them that guns were not a problem.

The grassroots side of the campaign struggled as well. At a MAIG event in Columbus, Ohio, the Buckeye Firearms Association organized a counter rally that drew twice the crowd.  In Raleigh, N.C., when Giffords passed through, a gun blogger turned out two-dozen people shaking green signs that read: Guns Save Lives. But perhaps the most dramatic scenes were in Manchester and Dover, N.H., where protesters arrived “full battle rattle,” as one man noted on a Facebook page for the counter-protest, toting guns—including an AR-15—and forcing Giffords out a back exit after her speech. The same week, Mayors Against Illegal Guns made its own campaign stop in the state, where police subdued one pro-gun activist with a taser and dispersed the crowd.

Even a fresh mass shooting failed to kick-start the movement for gun reform. Hours after the Washington Navy Yard slaughter on Sept. 16, MAIG convened more than 100 shooting victims and survivors, many of whom had been campaigning steadily since Newtown or before. They were tired and angry, their hope of reforms breaking up like glass on the Capitol steps.

And they decided to escalate their rhetoric, jettisoning “lost” for “killed” or “murdered,” and adding graphic new details to well-oiled speeches on the Capitol lawn. But again it didn’t work. By the grand finale, a reading of the long list of people killed by gun violence this year, the audience had thinned to nothing. Even the advocates had drifted away to a reception, according to the Washington Post.  

When single-issue is a strength

So why doesn’t anyone seem to care? The easy answer from the left involves the NRA, its fervent supporters, gun manufacturers, and words like “greedy” and “heartless.” But the truth is, as always, more complicated.

To make the world safer, the gun control lobby wants fewer guns in the hands of bad guys. The pro-gun side supports the same goal. But it also wants more guns in the hands of the good guys, believing that a bullet is the best way to stop the next unfolding national tragedy.  Both sides think the other is crazy and dangerous, but only the pro-gun side seems to have supporters who are passionate enough to focus on almost nothing else.

“They’re single-issue people and we aren’t,” says Beverly Moffet, a retired judge in Columbus, Ohio, and a supporter of Americans for Responsible Solutions. “That’s their side’s greatest strength and our great weakness.”

Even before Washington shutdown, the Big Three had almost no hard events on the calendar for October, and sparse calls to action compared to earlier in the year. Each organization will mark the Newtown anniversary in December, but how, exactly, they aren’t ready to say. And a similar sense of hiatus pervades activists on the front lines. None of those contacted were willing to rank gun control as their top concern, or even something they were still working on, not with marriage equality, immigration reform, health care, and poverty crowding the mind.

If there were another vote in Congress, Moffet added, “I think people would turn out for it.”

Until then, however, she doesn’t see the point.