That’s how Neil Heslin puts the last year of his life.
On Dec. 14, 2012, Neil’s 6-year-old, son, Jesse McCord Lewis, was one of 20 children and six others who were killed when a shooter entered the typical elementary school in the typical small town — Newtown, Conn. — and changed it forever.
Since then, Neil Heslin has made it his mission, as much as he can, to make sure it never happens again. He is one of the most visible parents and relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In February, he brought with him a framed photo of him and Jesse to Washington, D.C., where he made a tearful plea to the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass a law banning assault weapons. He has made countless appearances on television and cultivated friendly relationships with too many reporters to count, too.
“It is a very hard thing to describe,” Heslin told Business Insider in an interview this week. “Everyone is looking at you, staring. You know what they’re thinking. People from around the world know Jesse and I now.
“I guess you can call it ‘unwanted fame.'”
Every interview, every appearance, goes toward the goal of preventing another massacre like the one that happened in Newtown one year ago. But a year later, stunningly little has been done on a national scope to do that. The U.S. Senate took a vote on the most basic of reforms — expanding background checks on gun buyers — in April, when it went down in flames.
The only gun-related legislation to get through Congress this year was a 10-year reauthorization of a ban on firearms that are undetectable by metal detectors or X-ray machines. Even that legislation faced resistance to expansions.
That’s it. No gun bills. No mental-health legislation. Nothing related to school safety.
Neil Heslin wishes Jesse were here.
“Jesse could sell Eskimos ice cubes,” he said.
‘Worst day in politics’
What always surprises Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) are the ages of the victims.
Almost once every week since the failure of the background -heck bill, Murphy has taken to the Senate floor to share a story of a victim of gun violence. He calls the recurring series “voices of victims.”
“When I read these stories, there always seems to be a common theme,” Murphy told Business Insider in an interview this week. “The ages don’t seem to vary that much — 17, 18, 16, 20 years old. It’s catastrophic.”
In November 2012, Murphy was elected to become Connecticut’s junior senator. About a month later, his priorities changed drastically.
For better or worse, Congress and the White House immediately became immersed in the gun debate soon after the Sandy Hook massacre. Two days after the shooting, on a Sunday show, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that she would be introducing a bill to ban assault-style weapons. That night, in what was instantly one of the most memorable moments of his presidency, Barack Obama declared “we have to change.”
Other, familiar proposals soon emerged — one to ban high-capacity magazines, and one to expand background checks.
Some advocates wanted the response to come even sooner. Congress should have called a special session to address the issue, they say now. Others say that the response, fresh off the tragedy, was too much, too soon.
Whatever the case, the gun debate raged for the better part of the next four months. The National Rifle Association also came out rather quickly, holding a memorable press conference a week after the tragedy and blaming gun-free zones, movies, violent video games, the media, and more for the shooting. The group continued to be vocal as the issue stayed at the top of Congress’ agenda.
Heslin found quickly that with interest groups involved, there was little middle ground to appeal to average people. He was coached to change the way he talked. To this reporter, he mentions the word “gun” and then says, “I shouldn’t have said, ‘Gun.’ The minute you say, ‘gun,’ you’re either pro- or anti-gun.”
So not “gun reform,” but “common sense solutions.” Not “regulation,” or “control,” but “restricting access to certain types of firearms” for which no one has a practical use.
The prospects for some of the more ambitious gun-related proposals faded quickly. The one that everyone rallied around — that made Heslin and other Newtown parents travel to Washington during a week in April — was an expansion of background checks on gun buyers. It was sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from gun-loving West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania.
But that one failed, too. Four Democrats joined the vast majority of Republicans, and the bill did not garner the necessary 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle. And even if it did pass the Senate, its prospects in the House looked even worse.
“It was my worst day in politics,” Murphy said. “In the aftermath, I wasn’t along in being convinced that the tide had turned. You know, I’m a realist. I understand. But I’m shocked we couldn’t muster a few more Republicans.”
“It frustrated me the most because they turned it into a political game,” Heslin said. “You have 90% of Republicans voting one way, 90% of Democrats the other.
“It’s disturbing. It’s angering.”
Going to the states
Murphy and other pro-gun reform senators say that on a national scope, the first round was just the beginning. But there’s little appetite for another push, according to congressional aides. And in reality, gun-control groups have spent much of the past year focused on a state-by-state front.
“The gun issue is like the cruise ship that’s been headed straight toward the iceberg for generations,” Mark Glaze, the director of the Michael Bloomberg-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told Business Insider. “It turns slowly, and you hope it’s turning fast enough. But it is turning.”
Since the 2012 movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., more than 1,500 bills relating to guns have been introduced in state legislatures, according to the Institute For Money In State Politics. Very few of them have passed, but of the 109 that did, 70 actually loosened laws on guns. Only 39
Glaze pushes back on this by noting that in many of those states, the “gun rights” measures have been related to concealed-carry permits. That’s also true on the gun-control side, however, as many measures have relaxed those provisions.
Still, there has been considerably more progress for gun-control groups on a state level, and that’s where they are looking in the near term. Glaze touted the fact that Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, and Illinois have all passed measures expanding background checks. California, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have all strengthened their assault-weapon laws. And those state plus Colorado have all limited the sizes of magazines.
Of those states, Colorado has been the lightning rod. Two state senators were recalled in September, amid fury over the two gun laws that were passed in the state.
Angela Giron, one of the state senators who was recalled, told the New Republic in August that if even one seat was lost, MAIG “might as well fold it up.” Bloomberg himself donated $US350,000 to help the senators in question. Last month, another state senator resigned rather than face a recall, as well as the possibility that Democrats would lose their majority in the state Senate.
Despite the political pushback, Glaze considers the Colorado laws among the biggest victories of the past year. The laws are still on the books, and they’re “not going anywhere,” he said. Republicans, he added, targeted the most vulnerable senators to be recalled — a “political bankshot.”
Moreover, Glaze said, the laws are working. The Colorado Bureau of Investigations released information last week showing that it has prevented dozens of “dangerous” people from obtaining firearms through the expansion of background checks. Meanwhile, it continues to process background checks at an efficient rate — more than 4,000 on Black Friday, for example.
“People will soon start to see that they can buy guns like they always have been able to,” Glaze said. “But they will know that felons and domestic violence offenders and the seriously mental ill are being blocked from owning firearms. The sky didn’t fall, and Colorado is a little safer.”
Another Sandy Hook?
Back in April, liberal groups were preparing to punish the four Democrats who voted against an expansion of background checks.
Today, that same group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, isn’t quite sure how to answer when asked about its plans on the issue going forward. Then, after pausing for about 10 seconds, Adam Green, the PCCC’s co-founder, says something frightening.
“It seems like it will take another moment like Newtown for Congress to act,” Green said. “Which is the most tragic thing in the world.”
The bottom line is this: No matter on what side of the issue, almost no one thinks that America has done even close to enough to prevent any school in the country from becoming Sandy Hook Elementary. There have been 27 shooting situations at schools since Newtown — about one every two weeks, but none near the level of Sandy Hook Elementary.
Almost everyone also agrees that there will be more mass shootings — in schools, and in other places across America. Murphy, for one, is sceptical that another mass shooting, even akin to Newtown, would spur change. It will have to come, he said, from constituents holding their representatives accountable.
“If the death of 20 6- and 7-year-olds didn’t move this place, I’m really not sure what will,” Murphy said of Congress. “It’s ultimately going to have to be about politics — it’s going to have to be a situation where members of Congress pay a political price.”
Neil Heslin tried to go back to his construction job a month ago. He couldn’t stay focused on his job. He kept thinking about how Jesse would come along for the day sometimes, about how he would get so excited at helping out his dad on the job.
His home is overfilled with items that poured in after that day. His 24-by-24 family room is stacked to the top, because he doesn’t want to get rid of any of the gifts, or of any of Jesse’s possessions.
There’s a Christmas tree in his home that he never took down from last year. He and Jesse were supposed to decorate it that weekend. The weekend. It was about five or six hours away.
He says he’s going to take the Christmas tree down this winter.
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