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Gun Issues Return To Political Debate


In the wake of those mass killings in Newtown, Connecticut, there is a new conversation in Washington about gun laws. And there are signs that the outcome could be different than in the past.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For almost 20 years, Democrats have been convinced that pushing gun control is a surefire way to lose elections. Even after three previous mass shootings, President Obama didn't propose any new gun laws. But now, in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, he is promising to use whatever powers he has to prevent more tragedies like this one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

LIASSON: Indeed, even before Newtown, the White House had communicated to gun control advocates that in his second term Mr. Obama did plan to move gun legislation.

Tom Diaz is with the Violence Policy Center.

TOM DIAZ: I believe that the president was planning to introduce a package which would have included a semi-automatic assault weapons ban and a ban on high capacity magazines. That's what they were planning to do, and then, of course, the tragedy in Newtown sort of overtook that intention.

LIASSON: Newtown could be a turning point. Not only did it occur just after the reelection victory of a Democratic president, but recent polls show a possible sea change in public opinion. After the shootings in Colorado and Arizona, polls showed no increase in support for firearms restrictions. But the death of 20 first graders have sparked a different reaction. A new ABC/Washington Post polls shows 44 percent in favor of stricter gun laws, 32 percent oppose.

Jim Kessler is a founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

JIM KESSLER: Congress is not a leading indicator of public opinion. It's a lagging indicator, and I think with this disaster up in Connecticut, the gun control issue moves from the back burner to the front burner now and what seemed impossible in the past may seem possible now.

LIASSON: One conservative House Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah told ABC News that he wants to take action.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: We have to deal with the mental health aspect. I think it's fair game. I think we absolutely should talk about the intersection of a lethal weapon, and it relates to mental health.

LIASSON: But Tom Diaz thinks that will not be enough.

DIAZ: There is no way to tell in advance. There's no test for am I gonna go off my rocker and decide I want to kill a lot of people. There's just no screening for that. So what we need to do, and I think in a rational society, is restrict the availability of such weapons to such people.

LIASSON: Republican pollster Whit Ayres thinks both parties will move on this issue.

WHIT AYRES: Most Americans understand that you don't need a machine gun to go deer hunting and they also understand that we will never ban all firearms in America. So we need to focus our attention on constitutional options that will truly head off similar tragedies in the future.

LIASSON: Several pro-gun Democrats say they're rethinking their support for assault weapons with multiple clips. Here's West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on MSNBC.

SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: I can honestly say I've gone deer hunting. Just came with my family from deer hunting. I've never had more than three shells in a clip. Sometimes you don't get more than one shot anyway at a deer. You know, it is common sense.

LIASSON: Manchin's pro-gun credentials are impeccable. He even ran this add in his reelection campaign.


LIASSON: So far the NRA is keeping a low profile, but one former Republican member of the House is not.


LIASSON: Joe Scarborough, who co-hosts MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show, doesn't have to worry anymore about angering the NRA. But he spoke for what many people think is a growing, if so far silent, movement among Republicans. Scarborough said he stood firm after the shootings in Columbine, Aurora and Tucson, but then Newtown changed everything.


LIASSON: In the past, public revulsion after horrific gun crimes has tended to evaporate quickly. This time might be different. Next month the traditionally pro-gun chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, will hold hearings on the issue. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.