Prominent gun-rights advocates in US Congress are now calling for a national discussion about restrictions to curb gun violence, signaling that the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday could be a tipping point in a debate that has been dormant for years.
White House officials said US President Barack Obama would make gun violence a second-term policy priority. Yet it was unclear what Obama would pursue or how and aides said stricter gun laws would only be part of any effort.
The president met on Monday afternoon with US Vice President Joe Biden and a handful of US Cabinet members to begin discussions on ways the country should respond to the Newtown shooting.
It remains to be seen whether Obama and Congress can turn their rhetoric into action or whether the shock over the Connecticut shootings will fade before they do.
Public opinion has shifted against tougher gun control in recent years and the gun lobby is a powerful political force, particularly in Republican primaries. Obama has called for a national dialogue after other mass shootings, only to see those efforts take a backseat to other issues.
This time, the president has vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to safeguard US children against gun violence. He has long supported reinstating an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, but never pressed for it in his first term. Liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill are already laying the groundwork for legislation to outlaw the military-style arms.
Twenty children and six adults were killed when a gunman carrying a high-powered military-style rifle and other guns stormed Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday morning.
“Everything should be on the table,” US Senator Joe Manchin said on Monday.
He is a conservative Democrat, avid hunter and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa proposed a study of both gun violence and mental health issues.
Virginia’s Mark Warner, one of the few Senate Democrats who has found favor with gun rights groups, reversed course to back restrictions on assault weapons.
“The ‘status quo’ is not acceptable anymore,” he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on gun violence early next year.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted over the weekend showed 54 percent favor tougher laws, about the same as the 51 percent in favor earlier in the year. Seven in 10 are opposed to banning the sale of handguns to anyone except law enforcement officers, the highest percentage since 1999.
If Obama follows through on his pledge to make the stemming of gun violence a priority, he is likely to press for a broad approach. He has previously called for improving mental health services for young people and instituting more effective policing strategies, though his rhetoric has never turned into policy.
Obama has said he believes the US Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and has spoken of a national heritage of gun ownership. The president has signed laws letting people carry concealed weapons in some public places.
However, White House officials said the US president feels some urgency to address gun violence in the wake of Friday’s violence. Yet Obama is not expected to take any formal action before the end of the year, given the all-consuming efforts to resolve the “fiscal cliff” and nominate new Cabinet secretaries.
Flanked by dozens of shooting survivors and relatives of gun crime victims around the country, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressed for tougher gun laws after the school massacre.
“If this doesn’t do it what is going to?” Bloomberg asked.
Since the shooting, the powerful National Rifle Association lobby has been silent. Requests for comments have gone unanswered and officials are turning down interview requests until they have more details. The group’s 1.7 million-strong Facebook group has disappeared and the group’s Twitter account — its favorite platform to communicate with supporters — has not sent a message since before the shooting.