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March 29, 2013 5:36 pm
When lawyers were sparring with Supreme Court justices on Wednesday in the second of two cases on gay marriage, police in Connecticut were releasing details of their investigation of the murder of 20 children at a school in Sandy Hook last December.
The two unrelated events came together politically in a way which underlined the difficulties facing President Barack Obama in the multiple fights he faces early in his second term at a moment when he should be at his most powerful.
“I have never seen an issue transform like gay marriage in such a short period of time,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Mr Obama’s outspoken backing for gay marriage during the 2012 campaign prompted many commentators to hail his re-election as a great liberal moment, and a defeat for conservatives on both economic and social issues.
Connecticut police found an arsenal in the home of the late shooter, Adam Lanza: rifles, 1,600 rounds of ammunition, three samurai swords and certificates from the National Rifle Association issued in both his name and that of his mother, who was also killed.
But the initial horror at the incident has dissipated in the last three months. Congress is already retreating on gun reform, with Harry Reid, Democratic Senate leader, dropping an assault weapons ban from the main bill earlier this month because he said it had no chance of being passed.
A CBS poll this week showed support for tighter firearms restrictions falling from 57 per cent just after the Connecticut shootings to 47 per cent, tracing a similar arc to political will in Congress.
Mr Obama insists he has not given up, and his frustration was evident at the White House on Thursday when he appeared with the relatives of victims of gun violence.
“Less than 100 days ago that happened, and the entire country was shocked and pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different,” he said. “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”
A new law tightening background checks on firearms purchasers could still pass Congress, but Sandy Hook has not yet turned out to be the game-changer on guns that many predicted.
The outlook on other issues is also murky.
Republicans and Democrats are negotiating a comprehensive overhaul of immigration rules, with both sides – and the White House – quietly optimistic that a deal is possible for the first time in nearly three decades.
But on abortion, another issue Mr Obama highlighted in the 2012 campaign, public opinion is little changed, with the pro-life and pro-choice camps fairly evenly divided.
The Democrats hold a slight edge on the issue because of a backlash against the more extreme measures put forward by some Republicans. North Dakota, for example, all but banned abortions this week, but there has been no sea change in public opinion.
“This millennial generation really has had an impact on same-sex marriage in a way it has not on abortion,” said Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Centre for People and the Press.
The debate on guns, however, has yet to be played out in full.
Many Democrats believe they lost control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, and also the White House in 2000, because of their past support for gun control.
The NRA, fighting a revolt on its own right flank, has become more militant and less amenable to any kind of compromise over the same period.
But the big-money involvement of Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, might give Democrats the kind of cover they lacked in the past.
Mr Bloomberg has committed $12m of his own money to target senators ahead of an expected vote in the chamber next month. Mr Obama’s own campaign organisation is also trying to mobilise support.
A group of Republican senators is threatening to filibuster any bill tightening firearms controls, a position that could inflame more moderate sentiment against them.
Mr Ornstein said: “Guns has always been a classic example of the difference between overall numbers (favouring tighter controls) and intensity of viewpoint (against restrictions), and intensity prevails.
“There is a chance they could get something this time, but it will take some mobilisation from the president.”
Republicans have long campaigned on a trio of social issues, pithily summarised as “guns, gays and God”. Now, at least one of those is gone forever, but the other two remain in play.
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