WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — President Barack Obama exhorted the country not to forget Newtown yesterday as Congress prepares to debate gun control.
Obama delivered a speech that alternated between the poignancy of a memorial service, the enthusiasm of pep rally, and the chilling statistics of mass murder.
“We have to tell Congress it’s time to restore the ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10-round limit for magazines, to make it harder for a gunman to fire 154 bullets into his victims in less than five minutes. Let’s put that to a vote,” Obama told 3,100 listeners in a cavernous, noisy gymnasium at the University of Hartford.
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was one of 20 first-graders shot to death on Dec. 14, introduced Obama. Before Dec. 14, she said she would see tragedy on the news and then gradually return to the everyday concerns of family life — but “now there is no going back” because she’s committed to helping change national gun-control laws.
She asked others to join her in pushing for action: “Do something — before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.”
Obama picked up that request from a grieving mother, turning it into a rallying cry and a loud message to the U.S. Senate, which will begin debating gun-control legislation this week.
“Newtown, we want you to know that we’re here with you. We will not walk away from the promises we’ve made,” Obama said.
“I know many of you in Newtown wondered if the rest of us would live up to the promises we made in those dark days — if we’d change, too; or if, once the television trucks left, once the candles flickered out, once the teddy bears were gathered up — that the country would somehow move on to other things,” Obama said.
“If you’re an American who wants to do something to prevent more families from knowing the immeasurable anguish that these families know, now is the time to act. Now is the time to get engaged, to get involved, to push back on fear, frustration, and misinformation,” Obama said.
“Now is the time to make your voice heard from every state house to the corridors of Congress.”
In what became the theme of the speech, Obama repeatedly urged his listeners to contact members of Congress to urge a vote on gun control measures. About halfway through, the crowd was on its feet, chanting “We want a vote, we want a vote, we want a vote.”
“Some back in Washington are already floating the idea that they might use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms. Think about that. They’re not just saying they’ll vote ‘no’ on ideas that almost all Americans support. They’re saying they won’t allow any votes on them at all. They’re saying your opinion doesn’t matter. And that’s not right,” he said.
Obama was joined at the university appearance by families from Sandy Hook Elementary School, including Hockley and her husband, Ian Hockley. Twelve family members left with the president in his motorcade shortly after 6:15 p.m. to fly back to Washington with him. They plan to meet with senators in coming days as Congress begins debate of a gun control proposal backed by Democrats.
“I’ve heard Nicole talk about what her life has been like since Dylan was taken from her in December,” Obama said. “And one thing she said struck me. She said, ‘Every night, I beg for him to come to me in my dreams so that I can see him again. And during the day, I just focus on what I need to do to honor him and make change.’” Obama said near the end of his half-hour remarks Now, if Nicole can summon the courage to do that, how can the rest of us do any less?”
At the university athletic facility, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came out about 30 minutes before Obama to welcome the crowd. He said last week’s passage of a sweeping gun control law in Connecticut could change the political momentum in Washington in favor of gun restrictions.
“One question that was on the minds of many of us late on the evening of Dec. 14 (was) how do we make sure something like this never happens again?” Malloy said. He acknowledged that such a goal is “impossible to accomplish,” but added that the new state gun law “will be of assistance in preventing future death in the state of Connecticut” and will become “a turning point in the debate on a national basis.”
The U.S. Senate is finally planning to act on a gun-control bill this week after the issue has been stalled for more than a month there. On Monday, Democratic and Republican senators were said to be moving toward agreement on a compromise bill that would require background checks for nearly all gun purchases under federal law.
It would not quite be the “universal background checks” that Obama proposed in January — and which the Connecticut Legislature and governor enacted into state law last week. The compromise under discussion would exempt sales of firearms between closely related family members and some hunters from background checks. Those exemptions were being talked about as ways to meet the conservatives’ concerns.
Up to now at the federal level, background checks have not been required for sales between private individuals, and sales at gun shows.
Political resistance to gun control in Washington has endured, even though polls have shown that nine out of 10 Americans favor universal background checks.
Obama picked up that in his speech, saying: “90 percent of Americans support universal background checks. Think about that. How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?” The crowd laughed. He continued: “Ninety percent agree on this — Republicans, Democrats, folks who own guns, folks who don’t own guns; 80 percent of Republicans, more than 80 percent of gun owners, more than 70 percent of NRA households. It is common sense.
“And yet, there is only one thing that can stand in the way of change that just about everybody agrees on, and that’s politics in Washington.”
Even if Democrats succeed in pushing through universal, or near-universal background checks, through the U.S. House and Senate, it still would be far less than Obama and Democratic congressional leaders had hoped for after the Newtown killings.
They had sought to reinstate a long-expired federal ban on “assault weapons” such as the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that Adam Lanza used in the Dec. 14 school massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead. They also had proposed to ban ammunition magazines containing more than 10 bullets. Both of those bans were included in Connecticut’s new gun bill.
But Washington observers say that those two proposals appear doomed even in the Democrat-controlled Senate after vocal opposition from gun owners, the firearms industry and their lobbying group, the National Rifle Association. The most that gun control supporters now appear able to hope for is an up-or-down vote on those two bans — in what gun-control strategists say could become a means of holding opponents accountable for their votes in future campaigns.
Even that hope is uncertain, however, as the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is even less hospitable toward new gun restrictions than the Senate.