Just a few months had passed since Ben Wheeler was slaughtered by a gunman with an AR-15 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and his mother was on Capitol Hill pleading with a U.S. senator to understand her grief.
Francine Wheeler wanted to know what Sen. Heidi Heitkamp would do if it had been her 6-year-old child who was murdered.
“She would not look at me,” Wheeler recalled recently about the April 2013 encounter with the newly elected Democrat from North Dakota, a conservative state with deep support for gun rights. Heitkamp was “defensive, unkind, and not interested in helping or listening to the stories of our loved ones.”
When the session ended, Heitkamp stayed in her office “sitting at the table with her head down,” recalled David Thomas, a lobbyist who escorted Wheeler and other Sandy Hook parents to the meeting. As the entourage left, Lara Bergthold, another consultant helping the families, said she heard the senator “break out into sobs.”
Over the course of nine wrenching days that spring, mothers, fathers, siblings and other loved ones touched by the Sandy Hook massacre shared their raw feelings with senator after senator. They exhorted lawmakers to expand the federal background check system – a measure that would not have stopped the Sandy Hook assailant, a mentally disturbed 20-year-old who stole guns his mother had legally purchased, but that experts said could save lives and, more to the point, was so overwhelmingly popular among the public that it could win enough votes to pass.
The family members exposed their anguish to the harsh glare of the political spotlight, handing out postcards with smiling pictures of the young victims – one wearing a Superman T-shirt, another holding a pink umbrella – alongside admonitions such as “Honor Her Life.” The card for Ben Wheeler, featuring his first-grade school portrait, asked, “What is worth doing?”
If there was ever a moment when major gun laws stood a chance of passing, this was it.
The nation had been seized with horror by the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults – the deadliest shooting ever at a K-12 school and, for many Americans, a gruesome introduction to the carnage that a gunman with an AR-15 can inflict. President Barack Obama, who had just been reelected, called for dramatic new gun restrictions. Even the National Rifle Association, which had held the line on gun policy for nearly 20 years, was engaged with lawmakers about a possible legislative response.
The question facing members of Congress that spring was whether they would act to try to prevent future Sandy Hooks – or if the shattered windows, blood-soaked classrooms and decimated bodies of Newtown foretold the inevitable future of a nation in which the tools of mass death would remain readily available.
They would do nothing.
Days after her meeting with Wheeler, Heitkamp joined three other red-state Democrats and 41 Republicans to successfully block the background check bill the Sandy Hook families had begged her to support. A more sweeping proposal that would have banned many semiautomatic weapons failed that day by an even wider margin, with opposition from 16 members of the Democratic caucus. A ban on high-capacity magazines like the one used by the Sandy Hook shooter also fell short.
Now, as mass shootings have become more frequent in the decade since Sandy Hook, four current senators and three former senators have taken the remarkable step of recanting some or all of their 2013 positions. In emotional interviews with The Washington Post in recent weeks, some expressed deep regret for not pushing at the time for measures to restrict made-for-combat weapons or taking other steps to slow the violence that would only grow more common in the years to come.
“Not that I agree with the exact language of these bills, but it was my obligation looking backwards to provide leadership, even though I was there a hot minute, to make those bills better,” Heitkamp, who was sworn into office a few weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, said in one of two recent interviews. “And I didn’t do that. My activity was passive, not active, in searching for a solution, and that I regret.”
Heitkamp said she did not recall the meeting with Wheeler but was “extraordinarily sorry” for leaving families with the sense that she didn’t care about the children who were killed or the experiences of their grieving parents.
“If any person was left with the impression that I had anything other than the most supreme sympathy and just hurt, that is a failure on my part, and I couldn’t apologize more,” she said.
The six others who described to The Post their changed perspectives on gun policy were Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), as well as former senators Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
It is rare for politicians to shift their views on policy issues as culturally divisive as gun rights. But the expressions of remorse underscore how the failure to change laws in response to Sandy Hook continues to haunt many who held power at the time – prompting some of them to openly wonder if they allowed short-term political considerations to cloud their judgment on votes that might have saved lives. Obama, addressing Sandy Hook families last year at an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the shooting, called Congress’s inaction that spring despite his personal lobbying “perhaps the most bitter disappointment of my time in office, the closest I came to being cynical.”
Udall, who voted against the assault weapons ban that spring, said if he was “in a time machine and going back” he would bring a grim message to his younger self: “This is going to get worse and worse. More and more people are going to be deeply affected by this.” If he could do it again, Udall said, he would vote for the ban and “take the political heat.”
Looking back, Heitkamp said, only later in her term did she begin to assert herself more aggressively on issues where she felt the long-term consequences of a vote outweighed the difficulty of going against the views of most North Dakotans – a “process of becoming more certain” in her role as a senator, she said.
“You are going to take votes that will upset, probably in those cases, the majority of your constituency,” she said. “But these are votes that have a permanency beyond your service.”
The senators’ changing views also reflect how the Democratic Party has moved in recent years toward supporting more aggressive gun control.
Many Democrats had long refused to consider strict gun limits, blaming their party’s steep losses in the 1994 midterm elections on the enactment that year of an assault weapons ban. The ban’s expiration in 2004 preceded a new era of soaring semiautomatic weapons production, escalating after Sandy Hook, that has made the AR-15 the country’s best-selling rifle. Today, a well-financed advocacy network – sparked by the 2013 defeat in the Senate and supercharged by the mobilization of young people after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. – has heightened pressure on Democrats to unify around stronger gun-control policies.
The momentum culminated in the passage last year, after the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Tex., of the first significant defeat to the NRA in nearly three decades – a bipartisan measure adding modest firearms restrictions while spending billions on mental health services and school safety.
Still, the changes sought in the trio of measures that failed to pass in 2013 remain largely unrealized. And advocates acknowledge that enacting anything that far-reaching today would require Democrats to control the White House and Congress, with majorities large enough to overcome a Senate filibuster or eliminate that procedural obstacle altogether.
Gun rights advocates say the popularity of the AR-15 and other semiautomatic weapons shows the political danger for lawmakers in any attempt to restrict firearms.
“Politicians who aggressively push gun control run the risk of going against voter sentiment and risk their reelection by challenging these deeply held American values,” Randy Kozuch, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement to The Post.
Some of the senators who spoke to The Post acknowledged they had been influenced by the political power of the NRA and its allies and now feel they had been wrong to elevate the convenience of law-abiding gun owners over the opportunity to limit gun violence.
Some said that they changed their minds after emotional conversations with victims’ families or their own children and that they are hoping for a second chance to finally do right by Newtown.
Heinrich, a lifelong gun owner and hunter, said that after the Parkland massacre, his son, Carter, then in high school, joined other young people in demanding new gun laws at the March for Our Lives on the National Mall.
“When your kid tells you you’re wrong with that much conviction, you need to stop and think about it,” Heinrich said.
He voted against the 2013 assault weapons ban proposal. The bill was not perfect, Heinrich said, “but when you weigh that against what we’ve experienced in the intervening years, if that were on the floor would I vote for it? Yeah.” He added: “I didn’t feel at the time like this was my issue. And I think after you experienced a decade of mass shootings, it’s everyone’s issue.”
Heinrich and two other senators who voted against the assault weapons ban 10 years ago – Bennet and King – recently introduced legislation that does not go as far in eliminating dangerous firearms but instead would limit ammunition magazines and restrict other lethal features from certain semiautomatic weapons. They sponsored the bill with Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), whose wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was injured in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.
Back in 2013, many senators felt pressure when their offices received phone calls from NRA members in numbers that dwarfed the calls from supporters of gun restrictions, a sign of the pro-gun group’s entrenched organization. Some, like Udall, were heading into reelection a year later, facing the potential that backing strict gun laws could spark a voter revolt.
Heitkamp said she could tell where most of the voters in her state stood. “The NRA in some ways reflects the constituency,” she said.
But Wheeler, knowing that Heitkamp would not face voters for another five years, said she left the senator’s office feeling “angry, sad and confused as to why she would not help us.”
“I don’t know what was worse,” Wheeler added, “the senators who wept for Ben and then voted no, or the senators like [Heitkamp] who never even listened in the first place.”
‘Our only shot’
The first conversations in Newtown about mobilizing to demand new gun laws took place almost immediately after the Friday morning massacre. By Sunday, several dozen neighbors and local leaders, still in shock, filled a community room at the public library.
“We went around the room and asked people, what do we want to push for, what do we need to do?” recalled Po Murray, who had been involved in local politics for years and lived in the same neighborhood as the gunman. “I vividly recall that the majority wanted to ban assault weapons.”
Some thought a federal ban could happen. Even Sen. Joe Manchin III, a pro-gun Democrat with an A rating from the NRA, had said on national TV three days after the shooting that he was open to it.
In the coming weeks, though, the efforts in Newtown splintered.
Murray and other activists who were successfully pushing the Connecticut legislature to toughen its gun laws argued that the community should push Congress for a ban, later forming a new gun-control group called the Newtown Action Alliance. Others pressed for a more tempered approach that might appeal to the political middle – eventually creating Sandy Hook Promise, the advocacy group that would help lead the charge for the upcoming fight in Congress.
Several of the families who had lost loved ones, still grieving and traumatized, soon threw themselves into the discussions, flying to Washington for meetings with the president and vice president as well as leading lawmakers and others involved in the gun debate. For some, it was their first experience in politics – and suddenly they were the unwitting spokespeople for an issue they knew little about.
“I didn’t even know what the NRA was until this happened,” Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed in the shooting, recalled in a recent interview.
The families met with a Washington-based think tank, Third Way, as they assessed what types of federal legislation they should pursue. Matt Bennett, an executive vice president for the group, told the families that the “most obvious thing to do” in response to the tragedy was to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But he warned them that such measures had no hope in the Republican-led House or the Democratic-led Senate, where a bipartisan majority remained skeptical of gun restrictions.
Bennett offered a more realistic goal: persuading lawmakers to close loopholes in the federal background check system, which is supposed to prevent criminals and those with documented mental health issues from buying guns. Polls showed broad support for the proposal that these families could amplify.
“With the moral authority that you now have,” he recalled telling them, “it is conceivable that we can do that.”
Senators and advocates said later it had become immediately clear that banning anything would be a political nonstarter. Even restricting the types of high-capacity magazines that had allowed the Sandy Hook gunman to fire 154 rounds in less than five minutes failed before it began when Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who as a House member had represented Newtown and had gotten to know many of the families, couldn’t persuade a Republican to co-sponsor the measure.
“I remember being a little bit more hopeful about the high-capacity magazine ban, but, again, that hope got dashed pretty quickly,” Murphy recalled.
The setback made an impression on the Sandy Hook families.
“How hard is it to convince someone, like maybe don’t give somebody the opportunity to have 30 rounds in a magazine?” asked David Wheeler, Francine’s husband and father of Ben. “When that went down, we were shocked. That’s when I think we all got a real flavor for how difficult this was going to be.”
Ultimately, the Sandy Hook Promise group made the decision to focus its efforts on expanding background checks to internet and gun-show sales, not on assault weapons or magazine bans that seemed destined to fail.
Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son, Daniel, was killed in the shooting, said he and his wife felt they owed it to Daniel and his two older siblings to make any difference while they could – and background checks had a chance.
“We found ourselves in a moment in time when people would actually listen to us,” said Barden, who had worked until the shooting as a professional guitarist and now helps run Sandy Hook Promise with Hockley. “We felt that was our only shot.”
The families found an unlikely ally in Manchin, who had easily won election in conservative West Virginia in 2010 after running an ad in which he fired a bullet from a rifle into the text of an Obama-backed bill to limit carbon emissions. Manchin, who is not seeking reelection next year and is weighing an independent presidential bid, was so moved by the slaughter of children about the same age as his grandchildren that he hung photos of the Sandy Hook victims in the hallway to his private office and made himself a central figure in the debate. He dialed back support for an assault weapons ban, worked GOP friends and contacts at the NRA, and rallied votes for the background checks bill.
“Let’s just walk before we go into sprinting and running,” he recalled saying.
By early April, however, even the background checks proposal was becoming a steep political climb.
The NRA vowed to oppose the legislation. And despite Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) teaming up with Manchin as a co-sponsor, several Republican senators said they would block the measure by filibuster, meaning that supporters would need 60 votes for passage.
Obama, who had first met the families when he visited Newtown days after the tragedy, returned to Connecticut – telling a raucous crowd at a Hartford basketball arena that some senators were planning “political stunts” to prevent gun legislation from coming to the floor. That night, the White House said, the president flew 11 Sandy Hook family members to Washington on Air Force One.
The lobbying push would begin the next day.
9 days, 37 senators
The Sandy Hook families arrived on Capitol Hill on the morning of April 9, 2013, their schedule packed with media appearances and private meetings with senators. Their goal: to make emotional connections with potentially persuadable Republicans and pro-gun Democrats.
“We weren’t interested in shaming senators for their position,” Barden said. “We thought this was such a modest request.”
Multiple Republicans told the families upfront that they had no intention of voting for the background checks bill, though family members recalled that those meetings were often cordial.
“I have an obligation to listen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who vividly recalls the conversation and has stayed in touch with Barden over the years. “But I weigh that with where I come from and in the views of the people that I represent.”
Some Democrats and Sandy Hook families had hoped that they might find a Republican ally in Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who weeks before their meeting had announced his support for same-sex marriage, noting that his son is gay.
However, Portman had separately told at least one colleague during negotiations over the bill that he would not back gun restrictions because it was difficult to represent a conservative state and take more than one controversial liberal position, according to two Democrats who heard the comments and described them on the condition of anonymity because they were made in a private conversation.
In the meeting with the families, Portman told the group that he would not support the background checks measure even though he believed it could save lives.
Hockley said that she responded with a piercing personal question: “So, you can vote to protect your son, but you can’t vote to protect mine?”
Portman, who retired from the Senate this year, declined to comment for this story.
There were also frustrating conversations with some Democrats, family members said.
When the families arrived for their meeting with Begich, the Alaska senator who was up for reelection in 2014, they were told by aides to sit at a conference table in an outer lobby area rather than being invited to a private space, according to Thomas and Bergthold, the consultants escorting the families.
The staff refused to close the door to the noisy hallway, they said.
“Can we go back to your office?” Thomas recalled asking Begich when the senator emerged. Begich said no. The conversation, however emotional, would happen in the lobby, in full public earshot and view.
Begich, in a recent interview, said he did not intend to be disrespectful, noting that his lower-level offices did not have much meeting space. “If they took it that way, then I apologize,” he said. “But I took what they told me very seriously.” He said the pictures of the children that the parents had handed him remained beside his computer until he left the Senate after losing his reelection bid the following year.
The weekend before the votes would occur, Obama took the unusual step of turning his weekly presidential video address over to the Wheelers. Francine, fighting back tears, described how Ben had “experienced life at full tilt,” sang with perfect pitch and had just played at his third piano recital. She pleaded with viewers to contact their senators: “Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.”
By the time the final votes would be cast on the afternoon of April 17, the families had met with 37 senators in nine days, according to Sandy Hook Promise’s records.
As the Sandy Hook group sat in the public gallery overlooking the Senate floor, joined by survivors and families of victims from other mass shootings, many held out hope that the lobbying campaign had worked. If the background checks bill survived, they knew the GOP-led House loomed as the next step, but maybe a bipartisan win in the Senate would give them the boost they’d need.
Heitkamp’s office had been swamped with calls from constituents urging her to oppose the measure, but she did not make up her mind until hours before voting, she recently told The Post. Though she believed that the Manchin-Toomey measure would not stop mass killings like Sandy Hook or effectively prevent other forms of gun violence, she saw the bill as a way for senators to show they cared.
Heitkamp voted no, as did three other Democrats from conservative states – Begich, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana.
“This was a tough vote in a tough state on a piece of legislation that I didn’t think was particularly useful to solve the problem,” Heitkamp said in a recent interview.
In the end, just three Republicans other than Toomey – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona – voted for the legislation.
Moments before the gavel fell, 55 senators had voted yes – a majority, but five short of choking off the filibuster.
A decade after the failure, Manchin still laments that neither he nor Democratic leaders tried to force several more votes to pressure senators. “Just one and done,” Manchin said. “One and done on that was wrong.”
The families, and some senators, wept.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who had hours earlier admonished his fellow Democrats over lunch to not be “bystanders” in the face of rising gun violence, later said that day remains one of the worst of his tenure – now tied with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“I thought the magnitude of the tragedy and the effectiveness of these families and the popularity of what was on the table, you know, I just thought all of those things, we’re going to get there,” Kaine said. “And I just remember feeling that we let them down. We let them all down, and they were right there to watch it.”
Hockley, a former marketing executive who had been planning to open a health and fitness shop until the shooting turned her into a full-time advocate, described the vote as another gut punch.
“This was one thing I could do and I couldn’t even do this,” she said. ” . . . For something so simple not to be able to pass. I genuinely felt like, you know, I failed to protect Dylan from getting killed, and then I failed to do something for his legacy or protect my surviving son’s future.”
The families left the gallery and rode with Vice President Joe Biden, who had presided over the vote in his capacity as president of the Senate, in his motorcade back to the White House.
Obama was preparing to address the nation from the Rose Garden, where he would accuse senators from both parties of caving to pressure from the gun lobby.
Barden, who would introduce the president, said that before they stepped outside from the Oval Office, Obama grabbed him by the shoulders.
“He was pissed. I mean, he was visibly, personally mad, which you don’t see,” Barden said. Then, he recalled, as they prepared to step outside, Obama added, “Let’s go rip the bark off of it.”
Regrets and revised positions
With all the intensity surrounding the demise of the background checks bill, the measures that many advocates believed would be the most effective way to prevent future Sandy Hooks had become mere afterthoughts.
A ban on high-capacity magazines was defeated 46-54. The assault weapons ban failed 40-60.
One of the Democrats to vote against the assault weapons ban was Bennet, of Colorado. Two weeks earlier, he had attended an Obama speech in Denver to rally support for the background checks bill. There he met Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was killed by an AR-15-wielding gunman during the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., just five months before Sandy Hook.
Phillips sat in the Senate gallery on April 17 and witnessed the defeat, but background checks were never her primary goal. Even as some major gun-control groups continued to push for more incremental changes, Phillips began what would be a years-long quest to persuade Bennet to support an assault weapons ban, the law she felt would do the most good. Over coffees, lunches, meetings in Washington and Colorado, after subsequent mass shootings, she made her case. “This is the right side of history to deal with,” Phillips recalled telling Bennet, “and this is the moral right.”
For nearly a decade, Bennet didn’t budge. Then came the 2022 shooting at a July Fourth parade in Highland Park, Ill. Phillips visited Bennet in his Washington office, leaned in, touched his forearm and asked him to look into her eyes.
“It’s time,” she recalled saying. Both of them teared up.
Bennet said later that Phillips did not need to spell out the specific request. “I knew what she meant, and she was right,” he said.
It took a few months – after Bennet had won reelection by nearly 15 percentage points, his largest margin ever, and another mass shooting in his state, in which a gunman used an AR-15 to kill five in a Colorado Springs nightclub – before he publicly announced his support for the assault weapons ban.
Other current and former senators expressed remorse for their votes and, in some cases, their conduct during the 2013 debate.
Heitkamp, now the director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, told The Post that she wishes she had inserted herself into the debate more aggressively despite having just arrived in Washington.
“I can look back and say I could have done much better at the time, and I do feel that I could have had a more honest discussion,” she said, adding later: “The Sandy Hook parents still deserve a response. And to the extent that I was part of a failure in that response, it’s a regret.”
Heitkamp said that the “time has come to examine the kind of weapons that we allow people in the general public to own. . . . As a society we cannot seem to keep these weapons out of the hands of people who will do incredible damage.”
Begich, too, wonders today if his focus back in 2013 on hyperlocal concerns – such as the fear that instant background checks wouldn’t work in remote Alaska villages or that some on the North Slope used AR-15s to protect themselves against polar bears – prevented him from weighing the potential national benefits of additional gun restrictions.
“In retrospect, I look back and say sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice those elements for the greater good,” he said.
Udall, retired from politics, lives near Boulder’s King Soopers grocery store where, in March 2021, a gunman used an AR-style pistol to kill 10 people. Every time he goes shopping there he thinks about the shooting. He said the growing toll of mass killings has eaten away at what he calls the “emotional security in a civilized society.”
“You got to think it’s contributing in some ways to just the sense in America that things aren’t quite right,” Udall said.
Udall, who voted for the background checks bill and the ban on high-capacity magazines and is now on the board of Giffords’s anti-gun-violence group, lamented having a “misguided belief” during much of his term that he could develop a fruitful working relationship with the NRA. He said he appeared once at a news conference with the group’s leaders – only to learn later that they would oppose his reelection anyway.
“All the time they were working with me, they were organizing to take me out in 2014,” he said.
Kozuch, of the NRA, said that Udall was a “gun-control advocate,” saying that he can “try to revise history but his anti-gun voting record speaks for itself.”
Several of the current Democratic senators who have come to support the assault weapons ban represent states that have tilted more liberal since 2013, making their changed positions an act of political expedience as well as an expression of regret.
Warner, who voted against the ban, had come up in politics courting traditional Democrats in Virginia’s rural outposts and small towns, sponsoring a NASCAR entrant during his 2001 governor’s race. He likes to consider himself a “radical centrist,” but by 2018, the political map had changed. The path to victory in Virginia now ran through the Washington suburbs, where gun control is popular.
Soon after Sandy Hook, Warner’s three daughters began what would become a nearly six-year effort to persuade their father to switch his position and support an assault weapons ban. With each successive mass shooting, they became more direct with their pleas.
“That kid went to school the same way I did,” Eliza Warner, now 29, recalled telling her father after one of the massacres. The senator would defend his position as “the art of the possible,” but still his daughters pushed him. At one point, Eliza asked, “How can we think having clear backpacks is the solution?” Another daughter, Warner said, texted him after a mass shooting to say simply, “wtf.”
Almost eight months after the 2018 Parkland shooting, Warner came around to their point of view. He wrote an op-ed declaring he had changed his mind, regretted that vote and now supported banning assault weapons.
Reflecting during a recent interview, Warner recalled that the Sandy Hook families had never pressed him to support the ban. Asked what he would have done if they had, the senator paused.
“I don’t know how I would have turned them down,” he said. “I don’t know how I could have looked them in the eye.”