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Saturday, December 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — The heroic and inspiring role played by the families of the Sandy Hook massacre’s victims should not be used to create what would be a dangerously misleading narrative about how they changed the politics of guns.

The importance of last Thursday’s 68-31 vote in the Senate to proceed with debate on a bill to curb gun violence cannot be understated, and the testimonies from the citizens of Newtown were vital to that victory.

To say this is not to deny that many fights loom ahead. This was a vote to debate, not to pass, a bill — and the House of Representatives could prove an even larger obstacle to change than the Senate. We should not be blind to the skill of the weapon manufacturers’ lobby at the art of undercutting legislation through subtle amendments.

And this legislative round is unlikely to lead all the reforms that President Obama proposed, or that the country needs. It will be vital in the coming weeks to battle for additional measures beyond the background checks deal negotiated between Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), notably a ban on high-capacity magazines.

But make no mistake: The nation’s reaction to the killings in Newtown and the persistence of the advocates of sane firearms laws, including the families, have fundamentally altered the balance of power on guns. This is why 16 Republican senators joined nearly all Democrats in refusing to shut down the debate on a bill before it even started. It’s why abject timidity on the issue has been replaced by a grim determination.

The misunderstanding of why this happened, however, could set back the cause in the long run unless it is dispelled.

Because the accounts from the Sandy Hook families have been so moving and so wrenching, it is common to say that a gun bill is being carried along “on a wave of emotion.” There is nothing wrong with honest emotion, but the implication is that we are acting on guns in a way we would not act if our judgments were based on pure reason or a careful look at the evidence.

This has it exactly backward.