On some measures, though, there is broad backing. Polls show 90 percent of those questioned support expanded background checks, for example.
Both sides agree there’s an intensity gap on gun politics. Opponents of gun restrictions have been far more passionate about the matter and far more apt to vote solely on the issue, than those on the other side.
“It’s where politics trumps policy,” said Richard Feldman, head of the Independent Firearms Owners Association, which supported the background check bill.
Public interest in tighter gun controls has waxed and waned in relation to high-profile shootings over the years, said Shaiko, but “what is a constant in the equation is the NRA” — and skittish politicians know that.
Legislators “want to feel like they can take a position and not be harmed by it,” Shaiko said.
Their wariness harks back to passage of the last assault weapons bill, in 1994.
After Congress approved the 10-year ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, some Democrats quickly came to believe that it contributed to their loss of the House a few months later. When the ban lapsed in 2004, congressional Democrats made no serious effort to renew it.
Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor and expert on gun politics, said the NRA’s clout comes more from its motivated members who vote, than it does from the group’s campaign contributions to help those who back the NRA agenda and defeat those who don’t.
“If the NRA was only money and (leaders) Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, nobody would care,” Wilson said.
Obama entered his second term convinced of the need to marshal public support to push his agenda through Congress. After last week’s loss on guns, he said people were “going to have to sustain some passion about this.”
“You outnumber those who argued the other way,” he said. “But they’re better organized.”