CAPITOL HILL - When U.S. lawmakers return to Washington next week, a groundswell of renewed public pressure to stem gun violence in America will be put to the test in Congress, an institution that for years has ignored or rebuffed efforts to enact gun control.
President Donald Trump sent conflicting messages after last week's slaughter of 17 Florida students. He praised a powerful gun rights lobby, the National Rifle Association, on Twitter Thursday, one day after telling school shooting victims' families and classmates, "We will not stop till we get there [end mass shootings]."
Meanwhile, students in districts across the nation have mobilized as never before to demand changes to gun laws, mounting high-profile protests and confronting state and federal representatives. Public opinion polls have shown a rise in support for new gun legislation.
"The ground is shifting [politically] somewhat," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. But he added that only limited reforms, like expanding background checks for firearms purchases, have a chance of becoming law this year.
"You're not going to ban assault weapons that's the number one goal of these students," Sabato said. "You are not going to have President Trump and the Republicans in Congress, both houses, cross the NRA. It's not going to happen," Sabato said.
Recent history underscores Sabato's view. The last time Congress enacted significant restrictions on firearms occurred in 1994 when the federal government outlawed semi-automatic assault weapons and banned gun ownership for certain groups of people, such as convicted domestic offenders.
1994 Assault weapons ban
The assault weapons ban expired in 2004. The years since brought seven of the 10 deadliest mass shooting incidents in U.S. history, from Virginia Tech in 2007 to Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 to an Orlando nightclub in 2016 to Las Vegas in 2017 to this month's killings at a Florida high school.
After each incident, gun control advocates sometimes joined by victims' grieving family members demanded action from Washington to prevent a repeat. And after each incident, Congress held moments of silence but did nothing to strengthen gun restrictions.
In early 2013, with America still reeling from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that claimed the lives of 20 children, the Senate debated a bill to restore the assault weapons ban and expand background checks for firearms purchases.
The proposal was defeated when it failed to get the three-fifths backing required to advance in the chamber. The only significant action Congress has taken on guns since came last year — nixing an Obama administration regulation that would have aided federal authorities in flagging those with mental illness when conducting background checks for firearms purchases.
Enacting laws requires sustained engagement and activism, and Sabato noted that while public outrage spikes after each mass shooting, the furor eventually wanes.
"It's a long process to get legislation onto the president's desk," he said. "They [the NRA] know how to delay things. They know how to push the pause button until we shift to other subjects."
On Thursday, the NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, warned of an effort "to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms."
LaPierre repeated the NRA's longstanding proposal to make schools safer: arming teachers and administrators.
"Evil walks among us, and God help us if we don't harden our schools and protect our kids," he said.
Trump has asked the Justice Department to draft regulations banning so-called "bump stocks" that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire with far greater rapidity. He also signaled he is open to other proposals, including the NRA's.
Senate renews push
Meanwhile, key senators, including several Republicans, are promising a renewed push for gun legislation beginning next week.
Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania announced he will reintroduce legislation to expand background checks. Another Republican, Arizona's Jeff Flake, tweeted that he is working with Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California on a bill to raise he minimum purchase age for semi-automatic weapons to 21, up from 18.
More ambitious proposals, like reinstituting the assault weapons ban, could become politically viable next year if large numbers of gun rights-backing lawmakers are defeated in the November midterm elections, according to Sabato.
"It's too early to predict what's going to happen. We'll see," he said.