Newtown massacre thrusts gun politics to fore

(CBS News) There have been several high-profile mass shootings in recent years, and none of them led to any changes in the nation's gun laws. But on Sunday night in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama said, "We surely have an obligation to try" and prevent future tragedies.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are saying that means stronger gun laws.

The federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and Congress has resisted any moves to bring it back, or to put any other curbs on firearms. But now the question is posed starkly: Will this particular tragedy, with the deaths of 20 children, spur some action? Could this time be different?

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, "As a first-day bill, I'm going to introduce in the Senate -- and the same bill will be introduced in the House -- a bill to ban assault weapons."

For some Democrats, Friday's shooting has inspired a new push to bring back the ban on assault weapons, a bill that would restrict the sale of guns like the one used in the Newtown massacre.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who lost her husband in a mass shooting in 1993, said, "I do believe this is a different time. I'm not gonna say this is easy, this will not be easy. ... This is where the American people are going to have to be outraged again."

Supporters of gun control gather on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, during a vigil for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and to call on President Obama to pass strong gun control laws.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Obama said Sunday he would use all the power of his office to prevent a repeat of tragedies like the Newtown massacre. The president supports renewing the ban on assault weapons. But he ignored the gun control issue in his first term. And when he ran for president in 2008, he tried to reassure gun owners, saying at the time, "I am not going to take your guns away. So if you want to find an excuse not to vote for me, don't use that one. Because it just ain't true."

Gun control advocates are outnumbered in Congress. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argued Sunday that more guns are needed to prevent such tragedies -- even inside a school principal's office. He said in a television appearance on "Fox News Sunday," "I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office, locked up, so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn't have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands."

GOP Rep.: More - not fewer - guns the answer

The politics of gun control are toxic. Gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association wield tremendous influence. Paul Barrett, who has reported on Washington's powerful gun lobby in his book, "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" (Crown), said of the NRA, "It's a very skillful lobby organization."

He says that despite the fact that Americans are about equally divided on gun rights versus gun control, this massacre is no more likely to put limits on firearms than any previous one.

Barrett said, "It's almost impossible to imagine them taking on the NRA and defying the NRA, and that being the case, I just think it's very, very unlikely, as a pragmatic political matter, for anything to be enacted."

But there is going to be a push for action in Congress. On Tuesday, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence -- named for President Reagan's press secretary who was shot in the assassination attempt on the president -- plans to bring survivors and victims' families from the shootings in Aurora, Colo., Virginia Tech, and Columbine to Capitol Hill.