But some lawmakers say last month's school shooting in Connecticut, where a gunman with a legally purchased high-powered rifle shot dead 20 young children and six adults, has transformed the debate and that Americans are ready for stricter gun laws.
Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times/AP
The top U.S. gun lobbying group says Congress doesn't have enough votes to pass a ban on assault weapons, while the vice president was meeting with lawmakers a day before handing President Barack Obama a set of proposals on curbing mass shootings and other gun violence.
The National Rifle Association has so far prevented passage of another assault weapons ban like the one that expired in 2004. But some lawmakers say last month's school shooting in Connecticut, where a gunman with a legally purchased high-powered rifle shot dead 20 young children and six adults, has transformed the debate and that Americans are ready for stricter gun laws.
The NRA, with a history of punishing lawmakers who stray from its point of view, disagrees.
"When a president takes all the power of his office, if he's willing to expend political capital, you don't want to make predictions," NRA president David Keene told CNN on Sunday. "You don't want to bet your house on the outcome. But I would say that the likelihood is that they are not going to be able to get an assault weapons ban through this Congress."
Obama could act through the executive power of his office instead, and Vice President Joe Biden has said that is an option. Obama is expected to announce the next steps on gun violence after he is inaugurated over the weekend and enters his second term.
Meanwhile, senators plan to introduce a bill that would ban assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has promised to make a renewed push for a ban on assault weapons.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a lifelong member of the NRA, has said everything should be on the table to prevent another tragedy. But he assured gun owners he would fight for gun rights at the same time.
"I would tell all of my friends in NRA, I will work extremely hard and I will guarantee you there will not be an encroachment on your Second Amendment rights" to bear arms, Manchin said on ABC.
The NRA and other pro-gun groups insist that gun control conflicts with that Second Amendment guarantee, while others say the country's founders more than two centuries ago could not have imagined the kind of high-powered guns available now.
The NRA used its political power to spend at least $24 million in the 2012 elections. Separately, the NRA spent some $4.4 million through July 1 to lobby Congress.
Keene says the group represents its members and not just gun manufacturers, though he said the NRA would like industry to contribute more money to the association.
"We know what works and what doesn't work," Keene said. "And we're not willing to compromise on people's rights when there is no evidence that doing so is going to accomplish the purpose."
Instead, the NRA is pushing for measures that would keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Currently, a person is banned from buying a gun from a licensed dealer if the person is a fugitive, a felon, convicted of substance abuse, convicted of domestic violence, living in the U.S. illegally or someone who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution."
States, however, are inconsistent in providing information about mentally ill residents to the federal government for background checks. The non-governmental Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 percent of gun sales happen with no background checks, often at gun shows or through private sellers over the Internet or in classified ads.