On the eve of the six-month anniversary of the Connecticut school shooting, the White House and congressional leaders vowed to continue pushing for new gun controls — but the aftermath of recent mass shootings suggests such an effort is easier said than done.
The failed effort in April to pass gun-purchase background check legislation in the Senate follows lengthy debates on the hot-button issue over the past few decades, some of which led to legislation after years of debate, while others petered out.
But before a packed room of victims of gun violence and their families, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who was nearly endorsed by the National Rifle Association during his most recent re-election bid in 2010 — said this time is different.
"The writing is on the wall — background checks will pass," said Mr. Reid, Nevada Republican. "The only question is when."
Jillian Soto, the sister of 27-year-old Victoria, who was one of the six educators, along with 20 children, killed in December, said she was in Washington on Thursday to remind Congress what happened to her family and pointed out that six months after Sandy Hook, "There still hasn't been any federal action to protect us from gun violence."
President Obama began his 2011 State of the Union address by invoking the mass shooting in a Tucson, Ariz., parking lot that killed six and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Some lawmakers proposed new restrictions then; for example, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, introduced a bill to ban the possession of high-capacity magazines. But the call for bipartisanship Mr. Obama mentioned in his speech eventually gave way to the bitter fight in Congress over the nation's borrowing that summer — and talk of guns largely shifted not to new laws but the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running scheme operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Still, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden aren't giving up on efforts to push through stronger measures to reduce gun violence.
Mr. Carney said both men also met Thursday with the families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims and the administration "will continue to fight alongside them."
But John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies gun issues, said the prospects of any action on the issue in the next year are "exceptionally dim."
"If an event like Newtown couldn't move gun control, then I don't know there's a scenario short of ... political maneuvering that can move it forward," he said.
The 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, during which gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 before taking his own life, prompted laws to expand the federal background check database, but the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has been plagued with holes and noncompliance from states — two points actually wielded by gun rights advocates during this year's debate.
In the past, it's taken much longer than six months for Congress to push gun bills across the finish line. James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, was left paralyzed after he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. during the 1981 attempt to assassinate the Republican president. The bill requiring gun buyers to pass background checks named after Mr. Brady wasn't signed into law until 1993 by President Clinton.
It also took more than a year for Congress to pass a 10-year ban on so-called assault weapons after a gunman killed eight and wounded six in a San Francisco law office in 1993 before killing himself.
But after the 1999 Columbine shootings, a measure to close the "gun show loophole" failed to pass the House of Representatives after then-Vice President Al Gore provided the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
"I think gun control advocates are right to be discouraged ... but this is sort of the failure they've been having for some time," Mr. Hudak said. "That said, I think Newtown was the best opportunity to get something done, and they were unable to do it."
Even if the Senate manages to come back and pass something, it would still have to get through the Republican-controlled House. Asked if meeting with Newtown families left him with any new thoughts about how to tackle the country's gun issue, House Speaker John A. Boehner said Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, and Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, who has looked at mental health issues involved, have been working.
"And I'm hopeful that they'll continue their work," Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Hudak said one silver lining for advocates from the past six months is that for really the first time, the gun control lobby has an organized structure and resources to push its agenda in the form of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as well as other groups.
Mr. Bloomberg's group and the NRA have been airing ads either targeting or thanking key senators for their votes on the measure sponsored by Joe Manchin III and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican. But Sen. Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas Democrat and one of four Democratic senators to oppose the bill, is actually using Mr. Bloomberg's targeting as a cudgel for his re-election campaign.
Mr. Reid said Thursday that he considers Mr. Bloomberg a friend and talked with him this week.
"To have Republicans control the Senate is a sure sign you will never, ever get anything done," Mr. Reid said. "I have given my input; I'm confident that he'll listen. But ... he's kind of a free spirit. And a very rich one."
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