WASHINGTON — Another mass shooting, another drive for gun control. But will the latest shooting - this time at an elementary school - change the political calculus in Washington and generate more support for tougher gun laws?
"I think the impact of this is going to be inescapable," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is among the worst shootings in the nation's history and comes after a spate of other high-profile episodes of violence, including mass shootings this year at a Colorado movie theater, a Wisconsin temple and an Oregon shopping mall. The rampage in Connecticut left 28 dead, 20 of them children ages 5 to 10. The shooter then killed himself.
But although the tender age of the victims brought tears to President Barack Obama's eyes and an assertion from him that "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics," political observers from both parties were doubtful that anything major would be done.
"You think Social Security is the third rail of politics, try guns," said a Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Congress, far from being inclined to tighten gun laws, allowed an assault weapons ban to lapse in 2004.
"You have Republicans getting a lot of push-back from the base on a number of issues, such as agreeing to tax increases and compromising on immigration. Throwing the Second Amendment and gun rights into the mix would be devastating to the party," said a congressional Republican staffer, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue.
Opposition comes not just from Republicans. A number of Democrats have been skittish about the issue, contending that Al Gore's support for gun control cost him votes in rural states in the 2000 presidential election.
White House spokesman Jay Carney steered clear of the issue when asked about it Friday, saying it was a day for mourning, not policy debates. That stance immediately drew criticism from the left, and gun control advocates moved swiftly to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.
"If now is not the time to have a serious discussion about gun control ... I don't know when is," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
"President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown. But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress," New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said.
About 200 protesters appeared outside the White House, some carrying placards reading "Today: Sandy Hook. Tomorrow?" and calling for immediate action.
"Condolences don't work," said Pastor Michael McBridge of Oakland. What will work is "action now," he said.
"We've had enough," added Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a leading gun control advocate who sponsored the now-lapsed federal ban on assault weapons, has said she plans to make a new effort to revive the measure.
Adam Lanza, whom sources identified as the school shooter, was armed with three semiautomatic weapons, all legally registered to his parents: a Bushmaster .223 rifle - similar to the military's M-16 rifle - that he left in his mother's car before the shooting, and a Sig Sauer pistol and a Glock 9-millimeter, according to a federal law enforcement source. The source described both as heavy-firepower weapons with rapid triggers.
"Both are able to inflict heavy damage," said the source, who asked not to be named because the investigation is ongoing.
Brendan Daly, a former House Democratic leadership aide, was pessimistic that the latest shooting would lead to real change but hopeful it would at least lead to a debate about the nation's gun laws.
"We have been through this too many times before - Columbine; Virginia Tech; Aurora, Colo., and so many others - and nothing has happened," he said. "It is so frustrating. If we can't act after a classroom of kindergartners was mowed down, I don't know when we will. It will take real leadership from the president and the Congress to oppose the gun lobby."
Phil English, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, expects Congress to take up the issue of school safety but is more doubtful about major gun control legislation.
"We've already passed gun-free school legislation," he said. "There has got to be a response to these incidents, but it probably should be a response other than putting old wine back in old bottles."
Still, some advocates are hopeful that Obama will push more aggressively for gun control now that the November election is behind him.
Polls have shown the public divided over the issue. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted after the July movie theater shooting in Aurora found no significant change in public opinion, with 47 percent of respondents saying it is more important to control gun ownership and 46% saying it is more important to protect gun rights.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. declined to comment on gun control legislation "until the facts are thoroughly known."