Andy Parker’s heart broke last week when a gunman shot and killed his daughter, newswoman Alison Parker, and cameraman Adam Ward on live TV.
Through his grief, Parker wrote an essay, published by The Washington Post, vowing to spend the rest of his life “trying to implement effective and reasonable safeguards against this happening again.”
We’ve heard passionate promises like that before — after mass murders at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, after a gunman shot then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head outside an Arizona grocery store.
But what’s changed? Did the deaths of grade-schoolers, high-schoolers, college students and moviegoers in Colorado move the needle at all on the issue of gun control in America? Or is Andy Parker setting out on a doomed quest?
He acknowledged that the road will be uphill.
“I realize the magnitude of the force that opposes sensible and reasonable safeguards on the purchase of devices that have a single purpose: to kill,” Parker wrote.
“In recent years, we have witnessed similar tragedies unfold on TV: the shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut and of churchgoers in South Carolina. We have to ask ourselves: What do we need to do to stop this insanity? In my case, the answer is: ‘Whatever it takes.’”
Marking the 16th anniversary of the Columbine school killings, Mother Jones contemplated how little has been done since two teens terrorized the suburban Denver high school on that bloody day.
“Nothing changed after 13 people were killed at Columbine, or 33 at Virginia Tech, or 26 at Sandy Hook,” the magazine noted.
“Each of those tragedies came with the same breaking-news urgency as Columbine, but none generated the same sense of expected action because fewer and fewer people actually believed things could change.
“The last 16 years have been a lesson in how ‘never again’ can be cowed into ‘I need a drink.’”
But last year, considering how much the gun control movement has accomplished after the grade-school massacre in Connecticut, The Washington Post spotlighted a “new energy” in those efforts.
“After a spate of mass shootings — Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, among others — pro-reform groups are mobilizing on a scale not seen in more than a decade and doing so with resources and tools that their predecessors lacked,” it wrote.
In Washington state, for instance, voters defied the gun lobby by approving a measure requiring background checks for the private transfer of guns.
According to that scorecard, 99 new laws strengthening gun regulations have passed in 37 states nationwide since Dec. 12, 2012, and 10 states have made major overhauls to their gun laws.
Here’s how some of the country’s most high-profile shootings helped effect that change.
What happened: Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, both 17, walked into Columbine High in suburban Denver on April 20, 1999, armed to the teeth. Klebold had an assault weapon that could fire 36 rounds without reloading. Harris had a short-barreled rifle that fired 10 rounds at a clip. They each had a sawed-off shotgun, too.
The Denver Post reported that all four guns had been sold at Colorado gun shows in 1998 by private sellers who didn’t ask names of the purchasers or do background checks.
The public’s response: Gallup polls taken after the shootings found that Americans blamed the accessibility of guns more than any other factor for the tragedy and that two-thirds favored stricter gun laws.
Eighty-seven percent supported mandatory background checks for anyone buying a gun at a gun show.
The politicians’ response: Within a week of the shootings, President Bill Clinton introduced legislation banning private weapons sales at gun shows. Public outcry forced the Senate to reverse its opposition to Clinton’s bill.
The issue became red hot during the 2000 presidential election primary season, with Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley and Republicans Elizabeth Dole and George W. Bush all endorsing some form of gun control.
The gun rights advocates: Officials with the National Rifle Association argued that the shootings had more to do with “parenting and personal responsibility” than lax gun laws.
As the cry for more restrictive gun control rose, the NRA expanded its membership rolls to the highest paid levels it had ever enjoyed. The group headed into the 2000 elections reportedly with more money and paid memberships than it ever had.
The aftermath: Security in public schools across the country improved — more stringent monitoring of visitors, metal detectors, required ID badges, enforced dress codes, on-campus police, zero-tolerance policies against bullying and possession of weapons, and bulked-up mental health counseling.
The year after the shootings a bill came up in Colorado’s Republican-controlled state legislature to require background checks at gun shows. The bill didn’t even make it out of committee. Angry residents gathered enough signatures to put it to a statewide vote in 2000, when it passed with 70 percent of the vote.
In all, seven gun control bills died in committee in Colorado’s state legislature in the year after the shooting.
In the year after Columbine, lawmakers across the country proposed more than 800 new bills having to do with guns. About 10 percent of those bills passed, according to criminal justice research at Texas State University.
What happened: On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a 33-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people and wounded 20 others during a campus shooting rampage before fatally shooting himself in the head.
It was later revealed that Cho had consulted mental health professionals on campus, one of whom noted him as “troubled.”
The parents’ response: Several parents of students who died became advocates for mental health care and campus safety. After his son survived being shot four times, Andrew Goddard helped his son recover, then moved to Virginia’s capital to lobby for tighter gun laws. “I can’t sit around and not do something,” Goddard said. “I’m going to come down here every year until we get background checks.”
The lawmakers: Republican Todd Gilbert in Virginia’s House of Delegates played a big role in making sure that the state’s gun laws were not tightened. The former prosecutor argued that the way to keep people safe was to keep guns in the hands of the good guys.
“I know it’s a complicated issue,” Gilbert said. “But I’ve just never seen how disarming law-abiding people made anybody safer.”
The gun rights advocates: Gun rights proponents argued that colleges should let students and faculty carry concealed weapons.
College-age members of the NRA — who called gun-free campuses “disarmed victim zones” — held protests at dozens of campuses across the country. The NRA encouraged college students to take the fight to allow guns on campuses to their state legislatures.
The aftermath: In a story last year chronicling the struggle in Virginia to change its gun laws, The Washington Post noted that in six legislative sessions since the Virginia Tech shootings, gun rights — not restrictions — had become stronger.
For instance, Gilbert and his like-thinking allies dropped the state’s one-gun-a-month limit on purchasing handguns, and now Virginia allows firearms in bars, restaurants and automobile glove boxes.
Most states, including Virginia, have not moved to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, with measures to allow it stalled or voted down dozens of times in state legislatures.
Gabrielle Giffords shooting
What happened: U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and 18 others were shot during a constituent meeting outside of a Tucson Safeway store on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people died, and Giffords, who was shot in the head at point-blank range, was left critically wounded.
The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who had been suspended from college for disruptive behavior, was ruled incompetent to stand trial twice before being sentenced to life in prison in November 2012.
The public response: Rhetoric about gun rights, particularly comments by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, came under criticism. Palin was accused of fueling the gunman’s anger when the website of her political action committee targeted the districts of certain politicians, including Giffords, with an electoral map that appeared to place crosshairs over their districts.
Palin denied that the graphic was meant to look like a gun sight.
The gun control advocates: Calls arose anew for increased restrictions on the sale of firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The aftermath: Many new gun law advocates were born that day, including retired Army Col. Bill Badger of Tucson, who was one of those shot outside the grocery store. He was hailed a hero because, even though the shooter shot him in the head, Badger helped tackle him and stop the attack.
He spent years meeting with lawmakers and speaking to groups about “common-sense gun laws,” including safeguards for people with mental illnesses. Badger died in March of pneumonia.
Two years after the shootings, Giffords and her husband, retired Navy captain and astronaut Mark Kelly — both gun owners and Second Amendment supporters — launched Americans for Responsible Solutions.
The group lobbies elected officials to find solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible ownership, according to its website.
In an opinion piece published in USA Today in April 2014, Giffords berated the U.S. Senate for maintaining the status quo on gun control.
A Senate minority in April 2013 blocked a bill that would have expanded background checks on firearms sales and banned several models of semi-automatic weapons. The bill was introduced after the Sandy Hook massacre.
In March, Giffords joined a bipartisan group of House members working to resuscitate federal legislation to strengthen federal background checks for purchases of guns. Senate Republicans blocked the bill in 2013.
What happened: Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members before killing himself. Before he went to the school, he shot and killed his mother at their home. It remains the deadliest mass shooting at a grade school or high school in U.S. history.
The public response: The killings prompted strong public debate about gun control. Parents of the slain children formed a group called Sandy Hook Promise to lobby for stricter gun laws and to make sure their children did not die in vain.
The politicians: In a speech at a vigil in Newtown, President Barack Obama asked: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
Even lawmakers known to be strong advocates of gun rights said it was time for the country to take a look at gun control.
Among proposals: a ban on the sale and manufacture of certain types of semiautomatic firearms and a call for universal background checks for anyone buying a gun.
The gun rights advocates: Gun rights defenders argued that such limitations would violate Second Amendment rights. They continued to argue that criminals would be less likely to commit violent crimes if more people were carrying guns.
And they argued that in the case of Sandy Hook violent video games — Lanza was reportedly an avid gamer — and insufficient mental health care in America were more to blame than guns. It was reported after the shootings that Lanza had been “completely untreated” for psychiatric and physical ailments such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder and had not gotten the services and drugs he needed.
The aftermath: In the month after the shootings, Connecticut expanded background check requirements and limited ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
Lawmakers in New York, Maryland and a handful of other states also passed tough new gun restrictions. Obama directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct or sponsor gun-violence research.
Gun reform advocates received millions in funding from supporters. Groups of parents such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — who called themselves “bad ass moms” — have started using social media to spread their message.
Sandy Hook survivors and family members have become high-profile advocates in the gun control movement.
“That gun reformers see a path forward is significant, because for at least two decades they have lost much ground to their better-funded and better-organized opponents,” The Washington Post wrote after the Newtown killings.
“Firearms laws at the national level and in many states have loosened; the public has grown more supportive of guns in the home and more skeptical about gun regulation; grassroots cadres have arisen to normalize firearms in public life; and political partisans have hardened in a way that makes compromise on the issue very difficult.”
Colorado theater shooting
What happened: On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes walked into a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and fatally shot 12 people and injured 70 others — the largest number of casualties in any U.S. shooting.
He confessed but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was convicted this summer
The public response: Holmes used several types of firearms — purchased legally at two gun stores and Bass Pro Shop — during the massacre which, once again, incited public debate over tighter gun regulations.
The Brady Campaign, the country’s largest citizen lobby working to prevent gun violence, pledged swift action.
“We are insistent that our elected leaders take action to prevent future tragedies. Political cowardice is not an excuse for evasion and inaction on this life-and-death issue,” the group’s president, Dan Gross, said in the days after the shootings.
Former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton told CNN that the country needs “some sanity in our gun control laws.
“Gun control can reduce these numbers of incidents. These incidents will continue to occur. We are a country in love with our guns.”
The gun rights advocates: After the shootings John Velleco, director of federal affairs for of Gun Owners of America, said that gun-control advocates should acknowledge that “more gun control could actually make situations worse by making it harder for law-abiding folks to own and carry guns, which means for lunatics that there are more unarmed, potential victims.”
A few months later NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told his membership that the NRA was going to deliver a “loud and clear” message to Obama in the general election.
“When we’re done speaking out, sir, gun owners will have made the difference in key precincts in battleground states,” LaPierre said, “and you’ll have us to blame for your defeat in November!”
Obama won re-election.
The aftermath: Fearing copycat crimes, movie theaters across the country beefed up security at showings of “The Dark Night.”
Today, after hosting some of the most dramatic gun control debates in the country, Colorado has substantially stronger gun laws than its neighboring states.
Of the seven states that it borders, six currently have “F” grades on the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s scorecard, one scored a “D.”
Colorado now scores a “C-”, ranking 16th best in the group’s ratings.
Last week Holmes was sentenced to 12 life sentences — one for each victim — and an additional 3,318 years for the attempted murders of those he wounded.