WASHINGTON -- Despite a strong push for tighter gun restrictions by the White House and others, common ground continues to elude lawmakers, even in the wake of the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children dead and a nation horrified.
With a ban on assault weapons all but certain to lack the necessary votes, gun control advocates are hoping that Congress will at least consider stronger background checks and a crackdown on gun trafficking. But in spite of polls that show overwhelming support for such measures, those, too, will be a struggle.
Democrats and Republicans have sharp differences, and geography and social culture divides Democrats. Even debating the issue is uncomfortable for members of the president’s party who face re-election in rural and conservative states where gun ownership is high.
“It’s the worst of all possible worlds,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Congress. “You’re compounding two sources of potential gridlock.”
The Democratic-majority Senate is expected to consider gun legislation when it returns April 8 from a two-week spring recess, and it will be a challenge in a chamber where it takes 60 votes to get most anything done.
“Any measure, apple pie or motherhood, would have trouble passing the Senate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were slain in Newtown. “The opposition is relentless and ruthless.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, meanwhile, has shown little enthusiasm for strong action, and in fact, many would prefer to loosen gun restrictions. On Thursday, at the same time Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and families of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims were making an emotional plea for new laws, the House was quietly approving legislation that included four gun-rights provisions.
There’s probably little anyone can do to change the equation.
“It’s very political,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “In many parts of the country, people are strong advocates for the Second Amendment. In other parts, the emphasis is more on gun control.”
A March 7 poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut showed that 88 percent of respondents nationwide supported universal background checks, including 85 percent of gun owners.
But gun-rights backers also signaled that background checks, though popular with the public, will not enjoy universal support.
“I just got back from Wyoming, and people are very concerned that universal background checks lead to a national gun registry,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “People are opposed to it.”
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre told a group of conservatives in Washington this month that universal background checks, which he once supported, were a "placebo" that "won’t make anyone safer anywhere" and would burden lawful gun owners.
Gun control advocacy groups are well aware of the schism and will be active in key states during Congress’ spring recess. They plan petition drives, press events and panel discussions with law enforcement officials, university presidents and survivors of gun violence, tailored toward lawmakers they consider reachable.