Almost three months have passed since the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school jumpstarted a national debate about gun control, but as President Obama heads into a week of meetings on Capitol Hill today, his spokesman assured Monday, "common-sense" action to rein in gun violence remains a top priority.
The point of the president's visit to Congress - the latest leg of his "charm offensive" strategy to loosen Washington gridlock - is to hash out disagreements over revenue as lawmakers try to cobble together a budget deal. Hope for a breakthrough, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, could come from movement on other issues - including gun control.
"Amidst all the talk about partisan stalemating, gridlock - it is a simple fact that there is activity right now in Washington that represents bipartisan compromise; efforts toward immigration reform, discussions on reducing gun violence," Carney said during his daily briefing with reporters. "They're priorities for his agenda, and... I know he will address that when he's on Capitol Hill."
Carney argued there is already "progress on legislation to help reduce gun violence," and said "we are moving on" the executive actions Mr. Obama put in place in January as part of a multi-step comprehensive package. But as the Senate Judiciary Committee reconvenes this morning to continue debating the proposed assault weapons ban, the bulk of the legislation under consideration faces increasingly diminishing chances of ever making it out of committee, much less the full Senate.
Before adjourning last Thursday, the panel did approve a bipartisan measure that would make "straw purchasing" - wittingly buying firearms for someone legally prohibited from doing so - a felony, and would increase penalties for the crime. It is expected to ultimately pass both chambers, but its likely success has been credited more to the botched gunwalking "Fast and Furious" scandal than to the Newtown tragedy.
The other three bills up for a vote face longer odds. One, looking to funnel $800 million into enhanced school safety systems, may be asking too much of a Congress ensnared in deficit-reduction fights. Another, seeking an expansion on background checks, is frustrated by the "gun show loophole" that allows for private transactions. The third, calling for a ban on high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons like the Bushmaster rifle used in Newtown, invites the most heated opposition from the gun lobby, and faces resistance from even some Democrats.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all: Near-fiscal crisis after near-fiscal crisis, swallowing news headlines for weeks and threatening to dilute the passions reignited in December on both sides of the gun conversation.
Hoping to avert that course, Neil Heslin, whose son was among the victims of the mentally ill gunman in Newtown, delivered an emotional plea before a Senate hearing recently. His son Jesse, he said, "was the love of my life. He was the only family I have left. It's hard for me to be here today, talking about my deceased son... but I have to. I'm his voice. I'm not here for the sympathy...I'm here to speak up for my son."
Heslin asked the committee to consider in its legislation "mental health issues, better background checks, bans on these [assault] weapons, ban on high-capacity magazines - they all have to come together and they all have to work effectively," he said. "Common sense tells you that."
It's not a lost cause: With budget battles stymieing Washington's movement on the issue, activists and lawmakers outside the beltway have forged ahead with their agendas.
In Colorado, a bill barring convicted domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms passed the state senate Monday on a party line vote. Multiple states are looking at levying taxes - in Maryland, 50 percent - on ammunition. And as Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy finalizes his plan for tightening guns laws, opponents from the National Rifle Association turned out several thousand strong Monday in a protest at the state capitol.
Toting his own agenda into meetings Wednesday and Thursday with House and Senate Republicans, respectively, Carney said, the president believes it's an issue that can and should surpass partisanship.
"In the wake of Newtown, I would argue that there's nothing partisan about common-sense solutions to reduce gun violence in America," Carney said. "The victims of gun violence aren't Democrats or Republicans, especially when they're children. And there ought to be - and there is - a path forward to reduce gun violence in America, much as the president laid out, that respects our Second Amendment rights."