WASHINGTON -- The Aurora, Colo., mass shooting is reigniting a debate over whether tougher gun laws are needed, but congressional legislation is a long shot, especially in an election year.
Gun-control legislation is likely to be introduced again, as it was after other high-profile shootings, such as those at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007.
But even gun-control advocates acknowledge they face a tough climb. Many Democrats have shied away from the issue since 2000, when losing presidential candidate Al Gore’s advocacy of gun control is believed to have cost him support in rural states.
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When asked about prospects for gun-control legislation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Friday, "I don’t believe it has a chance in this environment.’’
Feinstein, a leading gun-control advocate who sponsored the federal assault weapons ban that Congress let lapse in 2004, added in an interview: "Americans really have to begin to show some outrage at this.’’
Brendan Daly, a former House Democratic leadership aide, also doubted that the Colorado shootings would spur congressional action.
"Congress didn't act when one of its own members, someone they knew and loved, was shot last year,’’ he said, referring to last year’s shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson. "There is no reason to think this year will be any different."
Polls show the public divided over the issue. According to an April survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 49% of respondents said it's more important to protect the right to own guns, while 45% said it's more important to control gun ownership.
The survey found that independents, aggressively courted by both parties, have become more supportive of gun rights, with 55% saying it's more important to protect the right to own guns and 40% saying it's more important to control gun ownership.
Gun-control advocates in recent years have been on the defensive on Capitol Hill, fighting efforts to expand gun rights, such as allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.
A posting on Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s Facebook page on Friday underscored the strong feelings on the issue. "If ONE person inside that theater was armed, this situation would NOT have been as bad as it is. Stricter gun control means NOTHING to the criminal,’’ said the comment by one of his followers.
Although it was not immediately clear how the suspected Aurora shooter obtained the weapons -- an AR-15 assault rifle, Remington shotgun and two Glock pistols, gun control advocates urged Congress to strengthen gun laws.
"The common thread that runs through all of these mass shootings ... is guns equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines, either handguns or assault rifles,’’ said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center. "It appears that this shooter had both."
"If your focus is on preventing this kind of shooting, you need to ratchet down the firepower available to civilians,’’ she added in an interview.
She said the group favors legislation even tougher than the now-expired 1994 assault weapons ban. Legislation introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y) after last year’s Arizona shooting would target ammunition magazines containing more than 10 rounds. But the measure has languished in committee for more than a year.
"Right now, we can’t even get the votes to close the gun-show loophole,’’ Feinstein said, referring to those who can buy firearms from unlicensed dealers at gun shows without having to go through criminal background checks.
Congress in 2007, in response to the Virginia Tech shooting, passed legislation aimed at expanding the federal database used to screen gun buyers to include more mental health records, but the results have drawn mixed reviews.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ratcheted up the debate by calling on the presidential candidates to "tell us what they are going to do’’ to prevent similar shootings.
"No matter where you stand on the 2nd Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them concretely, not just in generalities – specifically what are they going to do about guns?’’ Bloomberg said on WOR radio.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was among those calling for tougher federal gun controls.
"It’s time for the federal government to again ban these weapons, just like California enacted the nation’s toughest law against assault weapons nearly two decades ago,” he said in a statement. “Our lawmakers need to come together and do more than just talk about the pain and sorrow in the aftermath of these gun violence tragedies. They need to act.’’
Asked if the incident would spur any further push by the president to strengthen gun laws, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president continues to believe that the nation needs “common sense measures that protect the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing laws do not get them.”
A National Rifle Assn. spokesman declined to comment on gun legislation "until all the facts are known.’’
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