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After shooting, some Democrats demand action, but prospects unclear

Even after one of its members was shot and nearly killed last year by gunman Jared Loughner, Congress did not enact legislation to make it more difficult to buy or carry a gun.

In the immediate wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it's too soon to know whether federal or state governments will enact new restrictions on gun purchases or ownership. It’s also too early to foresee whether Congress or state legislatures will enact new policies to deal with mentally ill Americans.

For better or worse, the new policies would need to be determined in the political arena, with electoral accountability, and most members of Congress have shown no interest in going beyond the last major legislation to regulate gun purchases or ownership in 1994.

President Barack Obama’s initial comment Friday afternoon at the White House suggested that he wishes the policy decisions could be made above or aside from politics. “We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” Obama said.

But the pattern of elected officials who saw the shootings as proof of the need for further restrictive legislation suggested that the politics haven’t changed in the past few years.

Those from the Northeast and California who've supported gun restriction measures in the past were the ones on Friday urging Congress to act:

  • Rep. George Miller, D- Calif., said, “We must come together as a nation to honestly discuss how to prevent people intent on carrying out these savage attacks from so easily obtaining guns and ammunition.”
  • Rep. Nita Loewy, D- N.Y., contended that “easy availability of the deadliest weapons to the most dangerous people has cost countless lives and caused immeasurable suffering, never more so than today. Our expressions of sympathy must be matched with concrete actions to stop gun violence.”
  • Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested that “perhaps an awful tragedy like this will bring us together so we can do what it takes to prevent this horror from being repeated again."
  • And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential contender, said the nation must “once and for all crack down on the guns that have cost the lives of far too many innocent Americans. Let this terrible tragedy finally be the wake-up call for aggressive action and I pledge my full support in that effort.”

But a guarded response came from another Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, the state where 12 people were shot at a movie theater last July.

“I guarantee someone is going to come forward and say that the guards in the schools if people had guns everywhere there would be greater protection,” Hickenlooper observed at a press conference. “I am not opposing that, I am just saying you are going to hear every color under the spectrum over the next few months.”

There is legislation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could bring to the floor: Schumer’s bill to withhold federal law enforcement funds from states that do not fully report their background check information on would-be gun buyers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Schumer would also require colleges and universities that receive federal funding to implement a mental health assessment plan to identify students who pose a safety risk to themselves or others. And his bill would impose back check requirements on most private sales or transfers of guns.

Pivotal players in any legislative action would be the half dozen Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 who represent states that tend to be more protective of gun owners’ rights: Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.

Begich introduced a bill last year to liberalize interstate firearms sales, a measure supported by the National Rifle Association.

“Current laws restricting interstate commerce of firearms not only lag behind common sense and new technology, they are unfair and burdensome," Begich said at the time. "This legislation cleans up decades-old laws that are unnecessarily restricting the rights of Alaskans and other Americans to purchase and sell firearms."

Begich contends that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has made restrictions enacted in the 1968 Gun Control Act obsolete.

Two other Democrats also crucial to any Senate action would be Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and senator-elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

The NRA endorsed Donnelly in his 2008 and 2010 House races. Last June, Donnelly backed a measure the NRA strongly supported, voting to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not turning over documents about the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation.

Any effort to pass a gun control measure would be a test of clout and lobbying power, which the NRA undoubtedly has.

Whether Obama decides that he wants to lead an effort to persuade Congress to enact new measures to limit access to guns may in part depend on how the public responds in the next week.

Obama knows from his own experience in 2008 how sensitive the gun issue can be. In the midst of his struggle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama made a comment about Americans living in small towns with high unemployment. These people, he said, “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them … .”

That comment immediately drew sharp criticism from Clinton. The anger and sarcasm of Obama’s counter-response seemed to indicate the pressure he felt. “She is running around talking about how this (his ‘cling to guns’ remark) is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment,” he said at a campaign rally. “She's talking like she's Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton is out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday. She's packing a six-shooter.”