Since the mass killing of 26 students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. four months ago, opinion polls have shown strong support for new gun control laws, yet the future of bill in the U.S. Senate to reduce gun violence remains cloudy.
Public support remains strong for measures such as expanded background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons and large ammunition magazines.
This week, the Senate is likely to begin debating expanded background checks for gun buyers although it is still unclear if the legislation will overcome a possible Republican filibuster or suffer defeat in the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
The outlook for new gun control measures today is a dramatic change from the weeks after the Sandy Hook killings, when even many longtime supporters of gun rights in Congress said they were open to new gun regulations.
Then, 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, seemed open to supporting a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the days following the massacre.
"It's not as if there have never been lines in the sand and things you can't own," Walz said, in an interview with MPR News in December.
“In the legislative process it's a lot easier to stop things from happening than to get things to happen.”Robert Spitzer, State University of New York
The powerful NRA's influence seemed to be slipping. The Democratic-controlled Senate moved quickly to hold hearings on gun violence.
But in the House, gun control wasn't on the agenda. One of the few official responses to the Sandy Hook massacre in that chamber was a low-profile hearing on school safety in the Education and Workforce Committee chaired by 2nd District Republican Rep. John Kline. The topic of gun violence was hardly raised in the hearing, which instead focused on mental health services in schools.
The political strategy for Republicans was clear: silence, said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Cortland who studies gun control.
"By and large, they would rather avoid troublesome, contentious issues, and the gun issue is one example," Spitzer said.
President Barack Obama has sought to keep up the pressure on Congress to do something -- anything -- as he did during a speech in Minneapolis in February.
"But if there's even one thing we can do, if there's even one life we can save, we've got an obligation to try," Obama said.
The campaign appears to have had little effect on lawmakers.
In the Senate where Democrats have control, measures to ban assault weapons and large ammunition magazines effectively died. Most Republicans and some Democrats wouldn't back either proposal. With those provisions going nowhere in the Senate, House members like Walz -- who might have been open to the measures - quickly reverted to opposing them.
Opponents of new gun laws have been able to threaten parliamentary delaying tactics to great effect, said Spitzer, who is the author of "The Politics of Gun Control."
"In the legislative process it's a lot easier to stop things from happening than to get things to happen," Spitzer said.
Spitzer said gun rights supporters, backed by the NRA and other pressure groups, have rallied their members in a way that gun control supporters have not. That's despite public opinion polls that show widespread popular support for background checks and other restrictions on guns.
But national polls are also a misleading indicator of whether Congress will support an issue, political analyst Stu Rothenberg said.
"You know on one hand, you look at the national polls and you say, 'these members who are opposing gun control must be irrational,'" Rothenberg said. "But most of them are acting extremely rationally. They're worried about primaries, general election defeats."
Rothenberg said the way the congressional districts are drawn favors Republicans in rural and outer suburban areas where guns are popular.
So where does this leave the ambitious gun control agenda that was laid out after the Sandy Hook school massacre?
Any legislation that can make it through this Congress is likely to fall far short of what gun control advocates had hoped for in December. One advocate, Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, has been active with the group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has the financial backing of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Asked if gun control supporters should have done something differently, Rybak said he still holds out hope for a background check bill but said other elements, such as an assault weapons ban, would likely take more time.
"Eventually, I think, common sense will prevail. It may take awhile," Rybak said.
Rybak said he plans to continue campaigning against guns even after he leaves office at the beginning of next year.