Within hours of 10 people being gunned down at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado on Monday – the second such bloody rampage in seven days – the calls had begun for Congress to tighten up America’s notoriously slack firearms laws.
John Hickenlooper, a Democratic US senator from Colorado who was governor of the state at the time of the Aurora cinema shooting that killed 12 people in 2012, opined that “our country has a horrific problem with gun violence. We need federal action. Now.”
Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman and leading gun control advocate who was shot in the head in 2011, remarked: “It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s beyond time for our leaders to take action.”
The most prescient comment came from Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was one of 20 six- and seven-year-olds shot dead at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in December 2012. His heart was with the grieving families of Boulder, he said, adding that he hoped this year the country would “finally expand access to background checks”.
That hope that real legislative change could finally be on the horizon belied the years of disappointment that have brought Barden and other gun law campaigners to this point. In April 2013, the Sandy Hook father stood beside Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House hours after the US Senate had voted down a bill that would have introduced universal background checks on all gun sales.
It was a low point in America’s bleak history of political failure in the face of ongoing gun violence. If you can’t get Congress to pass such a rudimentary regulation as security checks on the purchasers of weapons just months after 20 young children have been shot at point-blank range with a military-style rifle, then when is possible?
“This was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” a shaken and angry Obama said.
Standing in the Rose Garden directly behind Obama and Barden was the man entrusted with driving gun reform on to the statute books: Joe Biden. After the slaying of the school kids, Obama had given Biden the job of coming up with a plan for substantial legislation that would help prevent Sandy Hook happening again.
The mission was custom-made for the then-vice-president. As a father who had lost his daughter Naomi and first wife, Neilia, in a car crash in 1972, he had no dearth of empathy for the Sandy Hook families.
He also had an impressive record on gun reform in the US Senate, having played a leading role in passing the Brady Bill in 1993, which required partial background checks, and having drafted a ban on assault weapons enacted the following year (it expired in 2004).
So what went wrong? Why didn’t Biden achieve meaningful reform at a time when the nation was deeply traumatized by a horrifying slaughter of its children?
The question is pertinent now, eight years later, when Biden has vowed yet again to take on the gun lobby. On Tuesday the president called on Congress to “immediately pass” legislation that would close loopholes in the background check system and reimpose the ban on assault weapons – almost exactly the reforms he failed to push through Congress in 2013.
A clue to what happened was given in one of the first of many meetings that Biden held with interested parties to discuss his proposals. The encounter, held at the White House, was with the lobby group that posed the greatest threat to his efforts: the National Rifle Association.
At the time the NRA, with more than 4m members and an iron grip on lawmakers whom it ranked according to their voting records, was widely feared as the most powerful gun lobby in the world. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice-president, had just days before issued his response to Sandy Hook, proposing in typically acerbic fashion that the way to prevent further mass shootings was to place armed guards in all schools.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said. In the ensuing months, gun sales soared.
By all accounts, Biden’s head-to-head with the NRA did not go well. The White House, the lobby group hissed, had “an agenda to attack the second amendment … We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.”
After that spluttering start, Biden went on to stage meetings with hundreds of other influential groups and individuals on either side of the gun divide. As an act of public consultation it was exemplary; as an effort at effective politics it was widely deemed to have crashed.
“If, by some chance, there could have been some reasonable bill on the floor [of the Senate] by January,” a Senate aide told Politico, there would have been “less time for people to sort of become ambivalent”.
Biden’s much-vaunted desire to be politically inclusive by reaching across the aisle cost him valuable time. In turn, that allowed the enormous energy unleashed by the horrifying events inside Sandy Hook elementary school to dissipate.
By the time the vote was held in April 2013, four months after the slaughter, the NRA had reasserted its grip over cowering Republican senators. In fact, four Democratic senators had joined them to vote against the bill to introduce universal background checks, which gained 54 votes to 46 but fell short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster.
Eight years on, Washington appears stuck in a scene out of Groundhog Day. Universal background checks are being talked about again in the wake of mass shootings, and all eyes are on Biden and the US Senate.
Five days before the Atlanta spa rampages, the House passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act by 227 votes to 203. The bill now passes to the Senate, setting up a repeat showdown that presents Biden with his greatest chance since 2013 to get things right.
Aspects of the tussle have tipped this time in his favor. Control of the Senate has passed from the gun-loving Republicans to Biden’s Democratic party.
The main roadblock, the NRA, has gone into a tailspin of scandal and financial calamity over the past 18 months that is likely to blunt its teeth as it tries to block the legislation.
The Senate battle ahead remains formidable, however, given that the chamber is evenly divided 50 seats to 50, and with the 60-vote filibuster yet again posing a daunting challenge. Biden finds himself in an all-too familiar place, seeking to drive through change against the odds with the hopes of so many bereaved families depending on the outcome.