WASHINGTON — Demonstrating rapidly shifting attitudes toward gun control in the aftermath of a massacre in a Connecticut school, many pro-gun congressional Democrats — including Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader and a long-standing gun-rights supporter — signaled an openness Monday to new restrictions.
White House officials remained vague and noncommittal about how President Obama would translate into action his soaring rhetoric Sunday night in Newtown, when he appeared to presage an effort to curb access to guns. But many Democrats, including several from conservative states, said Congress should take up the issue next year, and one Senate chairman promised hearings.
Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, an advocate of gun rights who drew attention in 2010 by running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle into a piece of legislation serving as a target, said “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.
The receptiveness to new gun laws from figures like Manchin suggested the National Rifle Association (NRA), long one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, would face a strong test of its influence in the coming months if it sought to fend off tougher restrictions. Leaders of the organization have declined interview requests since the shootings, the group’s Twitter account has gone silent, and it has deactivated its Facebook page.
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On Monday afternoon, Obama met with Vice President Joe Biden and three Cabinet officials — Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Arne Duncan, the education secretary — to “begin looking at ways the country can respond to the tragedy in Newtown,” an administration official said.
The official declined to give specifics, other than to say “the work will continue.”
Several people familiar with the deliberations said the administration, for now, was pursuing a strategy of taking time to develop a holistic response that could potentially be announced all at once, an executive order and a legislative proposal, rather than rushing to put out an executive order alone.
The thinking behind that approach, they said, was that the actions the president could take by himself — ordering federal agencies like the Social Security Administration to provide information to the background-check system when benefits recipients have been deemed mentally ill or when employees and job applicants fail drug tests — would have only a minor impact relative to things Congress could do, and that issuing such an order by itself could reduce momentum for more action.
“It’s a complex problem that will require a complex solution,” Jay Carney, a spokesman for Obama, said Monday. “I don’t have a specific agenda to point you to today.”
On Capitol Hill, Democrats made it clear that they were ready to consider changes after years of pointedly avoiding fights over gun laws lest they face adverse political consequences in swing states and districts.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who has the strong backing of the NRA, said Monday that there should be “stricter rules on the books” regarding guns, and he called the school shootings “a game changer.”
Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who will join the Senate in January and has long advocated a strong pro-gun agenda, said in an email Monday that “all parties must come to the table” to ponder legislation.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a moderate Democrat from Kentucky, said he had been “largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the past six years,” adding, “I am now as sorry for that as I am for what happened to the families who lost so much in this most recent, but sadly not isolated, tragedy.”
Democrats seemed to be hoping to seize on the momentum from the shooting, in which 20 first-graders were killed, and the resulting outrage and despondency of millions of Americans, to gingerly build a coalition of lawmakers who might be able to create some form of compromise limits on gun sales or types.
Some lawmakers will introduce bills to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, and high-capacity ammunition clips are expected to surface during the continuing lame-duck session or, more likely, in the 113th Congress, which begins in January.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has resisted some tighter gun laws, said on the Senate floor Monday that his committee would hold hearings next year “to help in the search for understanding and answers.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has said she will introduce legislation that would reinstate a ban on the sale and possession of large clips of ammunition. Reid supports the efforts and has indicated to some Democrats he would seek floor time for her measure. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he would reintroduce his high-capacity magazine ban legislation in January.
A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Rubio “remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to safely and responsibly bear arms, but he has also always been open to measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”
Despite pressure to move quickly, the White House is gambling that it can wait awhile, possibly until the new year, and still have enough political momentum from the outrage and grief over the shootings to overcome deep opposition to gun control.
Other mass shootings have prompted waves of grief and resolve to take action, only to fade in relatively short order. Some advocates of gun control, like Joseph Califano Jr., a former adviser to President Lyndon Johnson and Cabinet secretary under President Carter, suggested there was just a brief opportunity to press the case while public attention was focused on television images of children clutching teddy bears.