Can Sandy Hook Really Change the Politics of Guns?

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There's more passion behind the prospect of new gun-control legislation than advocates have seen in a decade -- but rounding up the votes will be hard.

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It happens after every mass shooting: Americans get momentarily passionate about gun control; the National Rifle Association lies low and waits for the storm to pass; and within a few months, the people and politicians have moved on to something else.

Will this time be any different?

Gun-control advocates believe it will. The massacre Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, has prompted an outpouring not just of grief but of rage, and it's been disproportionately directed at gun policy with an intensity and focus not seen in the wake of past tragedies.

There's a sense that a tipping point has been reached in public opinion, but gun-control advocates still don't have the votes in Congress.

But the question for advocates, as yet unanswered, is whether that passion is broad and lasting enough to turn into legislation. Thus far, the only lawmakers prompted to speak out for the first time on the issue have been pro-gun Democrats. And while the new willingness of Senators Joe Manchin and Mark Warner to challenge their erstwhile allies in the gun lobby is notable, it's Republican members of Congress that will have to move to get gun-control legislation passed. If you're hearing a mix of optimism and anxiety out of gun-control proponents, this is why: There's a sense that a tipping point has been reached in public opinion, but they still don't have the votes in Congress.

"I think we have a better chance than ever, I truly do. I feel it in my bones," Rep. Carolyn McCarthy told me. A New York Democrat, McCarthy lobbied to pass the original assault weapons ban in 1994 and was elected to Congress in 1996 as a gun-control advocate after her husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993. "I'm not someone who's extremely optimistic about these kinds of things, but there is a difference this time around. I see a lot more anger," she added.

McCarthy's priorities include renewing the assault weapons ban, which she plans to introduce in the House early next year; the new version of the legislation, which Dianne Feinstein of California is introducing in the Senate, will include a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, McCarthy said. Another focus is closing the "gun-show loophole" that allows people to buy guns at trade fairs and from private dealers without a background check. Obama supports both these measures, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday.

These types of policy changes enjoy widespread public support: Nearly 90 percent of Americans favor requiring background checks for all gun buyers, including 81 percent who live in gun-owning households, according to Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who has studied the issue extensively. A 2011 New York Times poll found 63 percent favored banning assault weapons.

The political clout of the NRA, long a Washington truism, is also being newly questioned. The powerful lobby has long inspired fear for its ability to pour money into campaigns against lawmakers who vote against its priorities -- $24 million since 2011, mostly devoted to opposing Democrats running for Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation. But that spending was notably ineffective in 2012. The NRA spent $9 million trying to defeat President Obama and elect Mitt Romney, to little effect; the overwhelming majority of candidates it supported lost, and candidates it opposed won. In fact, among independent-expenditure groups that spent money on the 2012 election, the NRA had the lowest return-on-investment of any group. Less than half of 1 percent of its spending resulted in the desired outcome.

Among independent-expenditure groups that spent money on the 2012 election, the NRA had the lowest return-on-investment of any group.

The result, McCarthy told me, is a lot of members of Congress who feel neither beholden to nor intimidated by the gun lobby. Democratic lawmakers like Arizona Rep. Ron Barber, who succeeded Gabby Giffords, and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, whose district includes Aurora, won their races despite NRA opposition and have told McCarthy they're committed to helping her with gun legislation, she said.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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