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Prospects limited for new gun control laws

WASHINGTON — Advocates for stricter gun controls have more money this year, more energy, the president’s backing, and the national outrage over the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on their side. But there already is a sense in Washington that they will have to settle for more modest gains in the months ahead than an assault weapons ban or sharp limits on magazine capacity.

Just how much the shootings last year in Newtown, Conn. — as well as the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, ­Colo. — have changed the political climate will be tested Thursday when the Senate Judiciary Committee reviews a series of proposals to curb gun violence.

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“If we don’t get [gun control] this time, we never will,” said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who cochairs a gun-control advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.

Americans have grown accustomed to hearing “I’ll look at it,’’ or “We’ll see,’’ when they’ve asked lawmakers about gun control, said Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York, who ran for office after her husband was killed and son wounded in a mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train in 1993. “People don’t want those answers anymore.

But the proposed assault weapons ban and limits on magazine capacity — even if Democrats win passage in the Senate — would not get far in the Republican-controlled House. Rather, proponents are pinning their best hopes on measures to expand the system for background checks and to penalize “straw buyers’’ who buy firearms for someone who is ­legally barred from doing so.

Speaker John Boehner has said the House will consider any legislation that passes the Senate, ­although he has not promised votes. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans would likely be required to win passage in the House, where Tea Party Republicans hold great sway.

Even the most modest proposals may be difficult to pass, said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of Stonehill College’s ­Department of Political Science and International Studies. Although gun control supporters have reached “the height of their strength . . . I wouldn’t expect much,” he said.

“The further we get away from the tragedy in Newtown, the more difficult it’s going to be for pro-gun control forces to sustain their argument,” he said. “Even reasonable proposals get caught up in the emotions of pro- and anti-Second Amendment conversations.”

The main goal of many gun control advocates is to expand the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which cross-checks potential gun buyers for criminal histories and mental illness, among other factors. The FBI database only processes retail firearm sales, however, leaving out up to 40 percent of sales that are made privately. Universal checks would expand the system to transactions at gun shows and between family members and friends.

More than 90 percent of Americans support such a measure, including 85 percent of individuals living in a household with an NRA member, according to a January CBS/New York Times poll.

Some pro-gun-rights organizations have even expressed openness to an expanded federal background check system, something the NRA opposes.

Still, groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, among the largest industry trade groups in the country, share the NRA’s fear that universal background checks could lead to a national gun registry, the group said in a statement.

Instead, gun rights advocates are pushing more incremental changes. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, among the most vocal Republican voices, unveiled NRA-supported legislation Wednesday that would add barriers to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining firearms. The proposal would fix a “major flaw” in the system, he said.

Most other controls would be non-starters for Graham and his allies. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Graham said semiautomatic weapons are essential for personal protection. He used post-Katrina New Orleans as an example, saying “if my family was in the crosshairs of gangs roaming around neighborhoods . . . the deterrent effect of an AR-15” is greater than a shotgun.

The NRA has been flexing its usual muscle in the aftermath of Newtown. It has garnered about a half-million new members since mid-December, bringing total membership to about 4.5 million, NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto said.

“We don’t usually see spikes like this after tragedies,” Otto said. “It’s more correlated to the increased calls for gun control.”

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action — the group’s lobbying arm — boasts a $25 million annual budget and has made firearm legislation politically perilous over the past 15 years. Its well-funded political action committee, meanwhile, spent more than $11 million to influence elections in 2012, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

The NRA is working in a new context, however. Members of both parties are coming together for the first time in years to discuss ways of easing the stalemate on guns. Longtime gun-control advocates see more possibility this season than they have since the early 1990s, when Congress passed the last assault weapons ban. That ban expired in 2004.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns has the support of more than 850 mayors. Along with city executives, the group has brought athletes, performers, and more than 1.2 million online supporters into the discussion, flying in about 120 gun victims for the State of the Union address to speak with members of Congress. The group even aired a Washington-area Super Bowl ad that targeted the NRA.

“We have been toiling in the wilderness for seven years on this issue,” said Mark Glaze, the group’s director. “After Newtown, 1,000 flowers bloomed.”

In October, the billionaire Bloomberg founded a super PAC, Independence USA, ­focused on gun laws, education policy, and marriage equality. It spent more than $8 million in 2012 elections. And it poured more than $2 million into the Feb. 26 Democratic primary for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s empty House seat in Chicago, helping defeat a gun-friendly candidate.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is also upping the ante. The organization gathered more than $5 million in donations in less than a month after the Newtown tragedy, almost double its take in 2010, said Dan Gross, president of the organization. It announced in February that it is hiring a Washington-based lobbying firm to push for congressional action. The group hopes to demonstrate “that it is safe for elected officials to be truthful on these issues” in the face of the gun lobby, Gross said.

McCarthy, the New York Democrat, said she senses big changes in the issue’s political tone. She ran for office three years after her husband and five other people were killed on a Long Island Rail Road train. Her son was one of 19 people wounded. She has spent her career in Congress seeking stronger gun laws and said it has sometimes been a lonely fight.

“I always felt like, ‘Am I the only one speaking up?’ ” McCarthy said. “This time it’s different. If we can’t get some reasonable legislation passed after what happened in Newtown, I don’t know what kind of catastrophe we as a nation have to go through to get something done.”

David Uberti can be reached at David.Uberti@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.
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