WASHINGTON — Three months removed from the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the urgency for many lawmakers to pass some manner of gun control legislation has quieted somewhat as the enormousness of the political slog ahead has set in.
But for Connecticut’s congressional delegation, whose schedules are still filled with meetings, interviews, and events pressing for reform to gun laws, Newtown might as well have happened yesterday.
“Every day since [Dec. 14], Newtown has lived with the consequences of political inaction,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, whose district includes Newtown.
On Tuesday, the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward a bill to require background checks for most gun purchasers, a group of bicyclists arrived at the Capitol from Newtown to urge action in response to the shooter who killed 26 people, many of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.
“It’s the efforts outside the Beltway, it’s those efforts that will drive change,” Rep. Mike Thompson, who leads the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said from behind a podium on the Capitol’s west front lawn. “That’s how things get done in Washington, D.C.”
But those efforts won’t do any good if Washington isn’t forced to respond, a fact that was underscored by the presence of the state’s entire delegation at Tuesday’s event.
The state’s congressional delegation has found itself inextricably linked to the prominent issue of how best to reform federal gun laws, if at all — their schedules monopolized by efforts to divine a path forward on gun control while satisfying their constituents’ acute desire for rapid, substantive change.
Whether an assault weapons ban, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, or universal background checks are legislatively feasible is beside the point.
“The number one job as a member of Congress is to take care of your constituents and the folks in your district, and it’s hard to imagine a need as great as this,” Esty said. “Whatever I can do to help them is part of what I need to do.”
Esty, a freshman Democrat, focused much of her campaign on issues like manufacturing and health care. But, just one month before she took office, her priorities were shifted.
“It’s refocused my agenda; I know that,” Esty told the Connecticut Mirror shortly after the shooting in Newtown.
On the agenda now for the Connecticut delegation, particularly Esty and the state’s senators, is gun control and little else. It requires taking any meeting even tangentially related to Newtown; returning, tic-like, in interviews to the topic of gun control; and staging any and all manner of news events, including one at a gun range and the one at the foot of the Capitol on Tuesday.
The latter event was six to eight weeks in the making and marked the end point to a more than 400-mile bicycle ride from Newtown, during which former Rep. Gabby Giffords tweeted encouragement.
“This day will be remembered,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal during his prepared remarks. “It will not be forgotten. It will not simply be erased by other events.”
But Blumenthal and his Connecticut colleagues understand that gun control remains a politically perilous issue, and that foils such as the National Rifle Association are still keen to maintain the status quo. Congress is also an institution characterized by its inertia, if for different reasons — and fighting that force on any one topic is in itself a full-time job.
“I think it’s difficult to get this place to think about anything for more than a few days,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat whom Esty succeeded in the House. “But the gun reform agenda has had staying power in part because I think Newtown really did transform the way America looks at this issue.”
The brute force of constant publicity has bolstered whatever organic staying power the issue has. Indeed, Murphy concedes, it has taken up “the majority of our time.”
“The families want to be here lobbying in Washington, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking with them about how to effectively represent their views and helping them get meetings in Washington, meeting with them back in Connecticut — so just helping to manage the advocacy of Newtown community members has taken a lot of our time when we’re not even fully staffed as an office,” Murphy said. “We’re still hiring staff and we’ve got a pretty big project with the issue of gun reform.”
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