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'Tough slog' ahead for gun legislation

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 9:56 p.m.

WASHINGTON — America has been here time and time again.

After Columbine. After Virginia Tech. After Tucson.

But something changed after the massacre last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The thought of 20 once-smiling 6- and 7-year-olds riddled with bullets seemed to permeate the national psyche.

This week, President Obama proposed the nation's most aggressive gun-control plan in generations.

“I ... have never seen the nation's conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook,” Vice President Joe Biden said this week. “The world has changed.”

But in Washington — where cooperation in a divided Congress is tenuous at best — it still may not be enough.

Some Democrats who've long supported gun rights have called for changes. But others on Capitol Hill, including most Republicans and Democrats from heavily rural states who are up for re-election in 2014, remain opposed to restrictions on guns, worried that the government is chipping away at the freedoms the nation was founded on.

“While we mourn with those who have lost loved ones, in no way should the actions of those few who act illegally impact the constitutional rights of the many,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

“I think they've got a long haul here … There are some of us who just fundamentally believe in a Second Amendment right,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

The right to keep and bear arms has divided American society for decades. There are no signs it will stop now.

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said, “Not a day passes that I don't think about the Newtown community,” but he remains opposed to changing gun laws. “The only place where this is a heated partisan debate is in the halls of Congress,” said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It's not among the American people.”

Politics, of course, plays a role. Democrats shied away from gun control beginning in the 1990s – particularly after losing so many seats in the 1994 elections – when they realized it was working against them in marginal states. That's why the shift among some now is so remarkable.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who worked in the Obama and Clinton administrations, recalled that President Clinton succeeded in passing some gun control measures early in his first term: waiting periods, background checks and an assault weapons ban were wrapped into a huge anti-crime bill in 1994. But later, even after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, the president wasn't able to accomplish more.

“Everyone knows this will be a tough slog,” Emanuel said. “While Newtown has focused us ... it's been a tipping point, but it's not a guarantee.”

A Pew Research Center survey released this week found that for the first time since Obama became president, a tad more than 50 percent of the public – 51 percent, to be exact – thought it was important to control gun ownership. That's only 4 percentage points higher than it was last summer after a gunman in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., murdered a dozen people.

“It's modest, but significant,” said Carroll Doherty, Pew's associate director.

On the other hand, the National Rifle Association's agenda has gained new momentum.

Just last week, Illinois state House members declined to consider proposed limits on assault weapons amid a surge of negative phone calls and e-mails from NRA members and other gun owners. In Wisconsin last week, legislators wary of provoking the NRA backed off a proposed ban on loaded firearms in the public gallery overlooking the state assembly chamber. In suburban Los Angeles, Glendale City Council members anticipate a packed and emotional meeting next week as a result of NRA-issued “grass-roots alerts” protesting proposed limits on gun shows. And legislators in at least seven states are weighing whether to allow public school staff members to carry weapons to work.

How successful Obama will be with the legislative proposals he made this week — banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, requiring background checks on all gun purchases, penalizing those who buy guns from unlicensed dealers, hiring 1,000 more school resource officers — when the wrangling begins next week on Capitol Hill remains to be seen.

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