One of the phrases repeated often by advocates of stricter gun laws since the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre has been: "If not now, when?"
That rhetorical question became a literal one Wednesday when a federal gun-control bill crashed and burned in the U.S. Senate after months of elevated hopes by Democrats, based on a national surge of emotion at the murders of 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
President Obama and congressional allies, including Connecticut's two U.S. senators, vowed in defeat to find ways to reverse Wednesday's "shameful" action in Washington.
In that moment, for these advocates, the burning cause born of tragedy became something else: a political issue requiring patient strategy over time more than passion in the immediate aftermath.
But if they couldn't transform Newtown's pain into passage of even a watered-down set of restrictions — expanded background checks, but not the "universal" checks they'd wanted — then what can they do differently as time goes on?
Answers from gun-control proponents included:
— Never underestimate the strength of millions of gun owners and their lobbying groups. Newly elected Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said repeatedly that the National Rifle Association had turned into "Washington's paper tiger." What happened in the Senate hurt advocates more than any paper cut. "It definitely shows that the NRA is a very powerful lobby," said Ron Pinciaro, director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence — who usually agrees with Murphy.
— Build on the public support and awareness that Newtown brought. Pinciaro said his group signed up an additional 27,000 people on its website above its pre-Dec. 14 level of 8,000. That increased volunteer efforts and fundraising, assisting in the effort to get the Connecticut legislature to pass one of the nation's strongest gun-control bills. The Connecticut law includes bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which never even made it into the federal measure blocked in the Senate.
— Understand that passing significant gun-control laws, if it ever happens, will take years. Former Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffett compared the anticipated fight to a "dance marathon," and said it will require fundamental change in a society where gun ownership is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Moffett recommended "taking names" of those who voted against gun control and using those votes against them in coming election campaigns to gradually change the makeup of Congress.
— Realize why 90 percent public support in a poll doesn't translate into legislative action. Although polls showed more than 90 percent of Americans supported the modest gun-control bill that came up in the Senate on Wednesday, majority Democrats failed to muster the 60 votes needed to quell a Republican filibuster.
A day after the Senate vote, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat who still wants to introduce a similar background-check bill in the House, said at a Washington press briefing that he had been trying to convince a moderate Republican House colleague from his home state to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill, to give it a bipartisan appeal. The Republican said he would vote for it but wouldn't co-sponsor it.
Thompson said he pointed out that 93 percent of the Republican's constituents favored the expanded background checks the bill would bring. He said the Republican congressman replied that he was aware of that, and "I read the poll — but not one of 'em has called me."
In other words, Thompson said, public opinion isn't worth much if it doesn't involve public participation. "It's time to get involved, and it's time to pick up the phone," he said.
Obama also stressed the need for citizen participation in an angry speech he gave outside the White House Wednesday evening after the Senate action. Surrounded by family members of Newtown massacre victims, he said: "If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass common-sense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.
"To all the people who supported this legislation — law enforcement and responsible gun owners, Democrats and Republicans, urban moms, rural hunters, whoever you are — you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed, and that if they don't act this time, you will remember come election time. ...
"So, to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you've got to send the right people to Washington. And that requires strength, and it requires persistence."
Up Next: The House
Even with the issue dead in the Senate, members of Connecticut's U.S. House delegation weren't ready to give up at week's end.
U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, said in a Courant interview that he thought a provision identical to the one that failed in the Senate could pass the Republican-controlled House, in the form of either a bill or an amendment — if it comes to a vote. He plans to introduce one, and he said that while the bill does not yet have a bipartisan co-sponsor he was hopeful he could find one, mentioning some conservative Republicans, including Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and 2010 Republican vice-presidential nominee, as open to the idea of gun control.
Larson said introducing such a bill in the House was one of the "other avenues" to achieve gun control after its crash in the Senate — but he also criticized the filibuster as most in need of reform. He said the bill would have passed a simple majority vote in the Senate, where it got 54 votes, but it needed 60 to invoke "cloture" and shut down a Republican filibuster.