Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a Washington D.C., public policy think tank devoted to the advancement of “moderate policy and political ideas,” including gun safety laws, has worked with families directly affected by 12/14 and Sandy Hook Promise since January. As an advisor to those seeking changes to current gun laws in a way that could honor the loved ones they have lost, he has shown them how to make their ways through the tangle of legislation, and pointed out to them that there will be many disappointments and lessons to learn before their hopes are realized.
When the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks, decided to introduce the online Brookings Essays, Mr Bennett’s brother, Steven, COO of Brookings Institution, approached him, saying he thought an essay about his experiences with Sandy Hook Promise would be a great essay.
“I checked with Sandy Hook Promise and made sure that the group was comfortable with my doing so, before I wrote it,” said Mr Bennett, in a July 16 interview with The Bee. The result is “The Promise: The Families of Sandy Hook and the Long Road to Gun Safety,” which went live Monday, July 15, at www.brookings.edu/ThePromise.
The long essay contains not only Mr Bennett’s personal thoughts on acting as advisor to Sandy Hook Promise, but a history of the nation’s gun laws, the loopholes therein, and his thoughts on how lax gun laws contribute to violence resulting in a gun-related crime every minute of every day.
He clarifies Sandy Hook Promise’s intentions, and how those goals have changed in just a little over seven months’ time. From initial hopes for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban of 1994 — which Mr Bennett also clarifies in his essay — and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, to ones that they feel will set the scene for a shift in culture and attitude toward gun issues, Sandy Hook Promise and families of Sandy Hook have rallied to form a force never before seen in the wake of a mass murder such as that at Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to Mr Bennett.
“I think the perception of what Sandy Hook Promise and its families is, is straightforward, in Washington, D.C.,” Mr Bennett said. “They are a group of extraordinarily determined people, intent on finding a way to honor lost family members in a constructive way. They decline to attack in a political way. I think,” he said, “that most have been very receptive to Sandy Hook Promise.”
His first impression upon meeting with members of The Promise and the families was that they were “conducting themselves in the right way. They asked questions, and were finding respected people to advise them,” Mr Bennett said.
At that moment, in January, “With teddy bears still adorning makeshift shrines all over Newtown,” he writes, “it seemed that progress on gun safety would be inevitable.”
Mr Bennett’s unfortunate task was to inform them that the way, which seemed so publicly supported and so simple, was going to be a long road, fraught with politicians fearful of the powerful gun lobby, those who would ridicule them in their grief, and many disillusionments — all of which would work to derail any progress in changes to current gun laws.
“The principal goal [for Sandy Hook Promise] in the beginning was to just help families survive. It was a triage role, made up of friends and neighbors,” said Mr Bennett, explaining why the Newtown group seemed overly cautious to many residents in its nascent stage. “They wanted to be very careful. They knew they were not experts in this area, and wanted to understand what they were getting into, before they made any policies. They were being very deliberate,” he said.
“The Promise” details the history of gun laws, something which Mr Bennett is aware is unclear to most Americans. “The majority of people think that [gun safety laws] are tighter than they actually are. They are stunned to find out how easy access is for anyone,” he said.
It was not until after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, that laws existed banning certain classes of people from buying or possessing firearms, or that the Federal Firearms Licenses existed for those in the business of gun sales. Even those laws, however, operated under an honor system, meaning many times the laws were not honored.
The Brady Bill in 1993, followed by the ten-year assault weapons ban on certain types of semiautomatic weapons in 1994, strengthened laws, but in order for the bills to pass, they were watered down, leaving loopholes that exist today.
There is a gap in public knowledge of how dangerous those loopholes are, Mr Bennett said, yet “Polling shows strong public favor in closing loopholes.”
The other gap in public knowledge lies in how unaware people are of the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) over politicians in Washington, D.C. “So,” Mr Bennett said, “you have the result you saw in April.”
In April, buoyed by polls that showed huge support of expanding background checks for anyone purchasing a gun, and having personally delivered their message to senators and representatives, families of Sandy Hook School victims and members of Sandy Hook Promise felt that the bill they supported to do so would be a slam-dunk.
It was not. The bill failed, despite the backing of President Obama and Vice President Biden, and thousands upon thousands of people across the nation.
“It was one of Sandy Hook Promise and the families’ most depressive moments. They thought change would happen quickly, but learned that nothing in gun policy changes quickly.
“It is about money, but it is the NRA’s perceived ability to shape issues, and their strong core of people who believe it favors the Second Amendment. In 1994,” Mr Bennett gave as an example, “the NRA went on a rampage after the Brady Bill passed, and knocked off powerful Democrats. Today, politicians have overlearned that lesson. Public opinion has shifted on the NRA, but politicians are still fearful.”
Sandy Hook Promise reeled after the April vote, but was quickly back on its feet, heels dug in, continuing to move forward, said Mr Bennett, inch by inch.
“What Sandy Hook Promise had to come to terms with was the disconnect between public opinion and the reality in Washington, D.C. There is an incredible, distorting effect in gun politics,” he said.
“The motto of Sandy Hook Promise is: ‘Our hearts are broken; Our spirit is not.’ And the extraordinary generosity of spirit that these brave people bring to this nasty, brutish political debate could, in the end, make all the difference,” Mr Bennett concludes in his essay.
There is a long gap between April 2013 and elections in November of 2014, and it is hard to predict how and if attitudes in Washington, D.C.. will change, according to Mr Bennett.
“My view, in the long run, is that politics is changing rapidly. Eventually, politicians will understand that if they are on the wrong side of gun safety, that they will be defeated. Maybe just not in 2014,” he said.
There are two groups in particular that Mr Bennett hopes will read his essay. “I hope that policymakers will read it and realize how dangerous the loopholes in the Brady Bill are, and learn an appreciation for how important Sandy Hook Promise is to gun debate,” he said.
Especially important to Mr Bennett, is that people in Newtown read it. “They need to understand how important Sandy Hook Promise has been to the process in Washington, D.C. Their friends and neighbors need to be supported. It is going to be,” he said, “a long haul.”
(“The Promise: The Families of Sandy Hook and the Long Road to Gun Safety” can be found at www.brookings.edu/ThePromise. Video links in the essay include “Sandy Hook as a Tipping Point,” Tim Makris, executive director of Sandy Hook Promise; author Matt Bennett and E.J. Dionne, Jr, journalist and political commentator, op-ed columnist for The Washington Post “Talk Gun Politics”; and “How Connecticut’s Gun Control Laws Could Affect Future Polices,” with John Hudak, fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings Institution.)