Washington — The gun lobby’s hold on Congress seems much less secure in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, although some staunch Second Amendment advocates are clearly hoping to stall an unavoidable national debate on gun control, perhaps in hope that the public’s passions will wane.
“I think we need a dialogue on that,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., of a proposed ban on assault rifles. “But we’re still mourning and grieving, and children haven’t been buried yet. … To jump to a quick conclusion is not the right thing to do.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Tuesday refused to answer reporters’ questions on what steps should be taken to avoid another mass murder.
Michael Steel, press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner — who holds an “A” rating from the NRA — said there is no rush to consider gun control. “If the president has specific ideas in mind, we will listen. But right now our focus should be on the victims, their families and their friends,” Steel said.
The NRA could once provide a lot of muscle in Washington. But the group, which spent more than $14 million in PAC money in this year’s election, may have a hard time imposing its influence right now, as the memories of the horrors in Newtown are fresh.
The NRA, noting that it’s made up of “four million moms and dads, sons and daughters,” broke its silence on the Newtown shootings Tuesday with a statement that it was “shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.”
“Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting,” the NRA statement said. It also said it is “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” but said specifics would be disclosed at a press conference Friday.
In recent years the NRA has been in the ascendancy, backing a successful challenge to Washington, D.C.’s, gun ban in the Supreme Court and winning congressional approval for guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains in checked luggage.
But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found 54 percent of people say they favor “stricter gun control laws.” That’s in contrast with a Gallup Poll last year that found only 43 percent of Americans backing a ban on automatic weapons or stricter laws governing sales.
Key Democrats who advocated gun rights — including Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Mark Warner of Virginia and Joseph Manchin of West Virginia — have also abandoned their positions, now saying gun laws should be strengthened.
President Obama has always supported reinstating a ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. But until now, he did not move on the issue.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney Tuesday said the president would champion legislation that would ban assault weapons and an end to a “loophole” in federal gun laws that allows purchasers at gun shows to avoid background checks. Carney said a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips “is something the president is certainly interested in looking at.”
Obama wants Congress to consider gun control in the coming weeks, Carney said, and the president met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder and other members of his Cabinet Monday to strategize.
Meanwhile, gun-control advocates, including the members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, are urging quick action.
“There would be no better tribute to the families who lost loved ones,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Lieberman said he sees “signs of hope around me” that new gun control legislation could be approved soon. But he said Congress must move before the memories of Newtown fade.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who also spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday, issued a challenge to the NRA and other gun-rights advocates who would try to stop new efforts to tighten federal gun laws.
“I will not be deterred by any organization or campaign that uses scare tactics,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal said he will coordinate with Senate colleagues who plan to soon introduce legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips, and closing the gun show “loophole.”
Like a growing number of lawmakers, Blumenthal said the massacre in Newtown is a turning point in the national debate on gun control.
“Sometimes events happen that so change the nature of the discussion, they are a tectonic shift,” he said.
Some gun control advocates agree.
“The national debate has changed completely in the wake of this incident,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
One law-enforcement veteran in Connecticut is less sure. James Strillacci, the retired West Hartford police chief, supports gun control and said he expected the debate to change before last Friday’s tragedy.
“I thought it was going to happen when (Arizona congresswoman) Gabby Giffords was shot,” he said. “I thought that was going to be the turning point, but no.”
Instead, when that happened, people suggested the outcome would have been different if more people had been armed, Strillacci said. The same thing happened after the mass shooting this summer at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
“In this country we have said this is the price we pay for the Second Amendment. Our innocents will get slaughtered on a regular basis,” he said. “This will happen again if we don’t do something.”
When Coats ran for his seat in 2010, the National Rifle Association supported his rival in a Republican primary. While Coats is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, the NRA could not forgive his 1993 vote for a bill establishing a waiting period to buy handguns. Coats survived the challenge but would not say if he would support a ban on the type of semi-automatic rifle that Adam Lanza used in the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, also declined comment, saying, “It’s not time to discuss (gun control)” as the families of the victims are still grieving.