By Jonathan D. Salant
WASHINGTON — President Obama may have a limited time to rally public opinion as he pushes Congress to enact new restrictions on gun ownership.
Opinion polls show public support for new gun laws increases after mass shootings only to diminish over time, complicating efforts to use the outrage over last month's killing of 20 children and 6 adults at a Connecticut elementary school to introduce a package of actions to ban military-style assault weapons and require background checks on all gun buyers.
A December Gallup poll taken after the shootings in Newtown showed 58 percent calling for stricter gun laws, up from 43 percent support in October 2011. The National Rifle Association has opposed any new gun laws, calling instead for armed guards at schools. Obama must keep reaching out to the public if he hopes to pass any legislation, said Tom Diaz, who served as a Democratic House Judiciary Committee aide in 1994 when Congress banned assault weapons.
"There's one word that explains it: leadership," said Diaz, the author of two books on guns. "It's fireside chats. It's really holding people's feet to the fire."
A task force led by Vice President Joe Biden is drafting proposals, to be delivered to the president by tomorrow, and lawmakers have introduced legislation in the new Congress. Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say lawmakers' priority will be tackling spending as Congress considers raising the nation's debt ceiling.
"In a slow-moving legislative process like the U.S. Congress's, opponents of change know that they need merely wait as public attention turns to the next big agenda item, and often momentum will fade," said Rogan Kersh, provost at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Polls show the percentages of adults backing stronger gun laws often rise after a major tragedy like the shootings in Newtown, or the 2007 killings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where 33 people including the shooter died.
After the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, 51 percent backed stricter laws in an October 2007 Gallup poll. In between that tragedy and the Newtown massacre, an October 2011 survey found 43 percent favoring stricter gun laws.
Polling by the Pew Research Center after the Virginia Tech shootings showed Americans, by 60 percent to 32 percent, saying it was more important to control gun ownership than protect gun rights. By March 2010, both sides had 46 percent support. Pew's post-Newtown poll showed 49 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership and 42 percent saying it was more important to protect Americans' gun rights.
Frank Newport, director of the Gallup poll, said the 15- percentage-point rise in support for stronger gun laws was the largest increase he recorded after any mass shooting.
"The fact that jump was as large as it was suggests the probability that the increase in the desire for stricter gun laws could last longer," Newport said.
Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was killed in a 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, is counting on that.
"We've certainly seen the ups and downs of people wanting us to do something," McCarthy said. "This time it feels different. There's a lot more anger."
McCarthy said proponents of new gun laws will use social media to galvanize public opinion. A group formed after Newtown, One Million Moms for Gun Control, started its Facebook page on Dec. 15, a day after the killings. It recorded more than 20,000 likes in its first month.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he doesn't expect "the sense of urgency" to stem gun violence after the Newtown shootings to evaporate quickly.
"The atrocity was so staggering and brutal that I think it struck a chord and captured attention in a way that is unique," he said.
Pressure now will fall on Obama, who has been more reticent than former President Bill Clinton on banning assault weapons.
"While Clinton was vocal in supporting stronger measures during his presidency, Obama has been silent, and governmental leaders have a significant ability to lead public opinion," said Robert Spitzer, chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of four books on gun control.
Obama, in an interview broadcast Dec. 30 on NBC's "Meet the Press," listed four top legislative priorities and discussed gun control only when asked about it.
"We're not going to get this done unless the American people decide it's important," he said, noting his previous support of banning assault weapons.
Citing an Abraham Lincoln adage, he added, "With public opinion there's nothing you can't do, and without public opinion, there's very little you can get done in this town."