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December 22, 2012

Column: Newtown, politics and gun control

If you’re thinking that last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., makes it likely that Congress will soon pass stricter federal gun laws, remember this: People thought the same thing in 2011, after a gunman shot into a Tucson crowd, killing six and injuring others, including Gabrielle Giffords, one of the House of Representatives’ own members.

Public support for gun control tends to swell after a mass shooting. But then, just as quickly, it tends to ebb, and opponents are happy to wait the process out.

Tougher gun control laws face an array of obstacles. The National Rifle Association and its allies are still a powerful lobby. The fervor for more regulation is almost exclusively among Democrats; the Republican majority in the House is still solidly opposed. And there’s that inevitable erosion of public attention once the heartbreaking images of funerals fade.

But it’s possible that the latest round of calls for regulation could end differently, and not only because the murder of 20 young children is so horrifying.

This time, the debate will take place in a very different political landscape, and that’s probably more important, in Congress’ calculations, than the emotional impact of the Newtown murders.

Consider the differences between today and last summer, when there was a brief clamor for stricter gun laws after a gunman killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., theater. Back then, it wasn’t clear whether President Obama could win a second term, and it seemed likely that the GOP would retake the Senate. Congressional Republicans saw no reason to compromise, and Obama didn’t have political capital to waste.

When the president was forced to talk about the issue in an October debate, he began this way: “I believe in the 2nd Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.”

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