WASHINGTON -- It was a powerful moment on the White House lawn when thousands of guests, the loved ones of slain crime victims among them, crowded in as President Bill Clinton signed a sweeping crime bill that was six years in the making and included a hotly disputed ban on assault weapons.
"Today, at last, the waiting ends," Clinton said on that day in 1994. "Today, the bickering stops, the era of excuses is over."
Two decades and so many gun tragedies later, the political fallout from that long-gone assault weapons ban still casts a long shadow over Washington.
Gun-control advocates are scrambling to regroup after losing soundly to the National Rifle Association on their best opportunity in years to tighten gun laws. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing about what went wrong for them or theories about what to do next.
It was a grim-faced President Barack Obama who stood in the Rose Garden with a handful of family members of those slain at Newtown, Conn., after the Senate last week rejected background checks and other gun restrictions, including a new assault weapons ban.
"I see this as just round one," the president said, raw emotion in his voice. "Sooner or later, we are going to get this right."
But if the carnage at Newtown, the pleas of grieving family members and the persuasions of an engaged president weren’t enough to push gun restrictions through Congress, the road ahead is sure to be difficult for those advocating tighter controls.
The NRA is powerful as ever and poised to stand firm for the long haul. Sentiment for stricter gun laws, which rose after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, has slipped somewhat in recent weeks. Obama’s willingness to stick with the issue in a big way when he has immigration, budget and other pressing matters on his agenda is uncertain.
In the immediate aftermath of the latest votes, with legislative strategy up in the air, gun control advocates are pinning their best hopes on two broad paths forward:
--Trying to counter the NRA’s impressive grass-roots network of nearly 5 million members by summoning more passion and energy from people who support restrictions such as an expansion of background checks for gun purchasers. Unless public demand for tougher gun laws "becomes a permanent fixture in politics to counterbalance the NRA, it’s only going to be by luck and happenstance that gun control actually wins," said Dartmouth government professor Ron Shaiko, who has written extensively about the lobbying industry.
--Strengthening gun laws at the state level, where gun control advocates have had a number of significant victories in the months since Sandy Hook. "We’re seeing leadership that is coming from the states, and we’re going to be there to help that momentum and to make sure that momentum is felt here in this city, in Washington," said Mark Kelly, who founded a gun control group with his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, after she was shot by a gunman in Arizona two years ago.
The NRA is digging in for a long fight and claiming public support naturally trends its way.
"There’s a big misconception out there that gun rights are where they are because of the NRA," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "The reality is that majority of Americans support gun rights and support self-defense laws."
Polls paint a mixed picture.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll this month, 49 percent favored stricter gun laws, 10 percent wanted less-strict laws and 38 percent thought things should remain as they are. The poll found some slippage in support for stricter laws from earlier in the year.
On some measures, though, there is broad backing. Polls show 90 percent of those questioned support expanded background checks, for example.
Both sides agree there’s an intensity gap on gun politics. Opponents of gun restrictions have been far more passionate about the matter and far more apt to vote solely on the issue, than those on the other side.
"It’s where politics trumps policy," said Richard Feldman, head of the Independent Firearms Owners Association, which supported the background check bill.
Public interest in tighter gun controls has waxed and waned in relation to high-profile shootings over the years, said Shaiko, but "what is a constant in the equation is the NRA" -- and skittish politicians know that.
Legislators "want to feel like they can take a position and not be harmed by it," Shaiko said.
Their wariness harks back to passage of the last assault weapons bill, in 1994.
After Congress approved the 10-year ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, some Democrats quickly came to believe that it contributed to their loss of the House a few months later. When the ban lapsed in 2004, congressional Democrats made no serious effort to renew it.
Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor and expert on gun politics, said the NRA’s clout comes more from its motivated members who vote, than it does from the group’s campaign contributions to help those who back the NRA agenda and defeat those who don’t.
"If the NRA was only money and (leaders) Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, nobody would care," Wilson said.
Obama entered his second term convinced of the need to marshal public support to push his agenda through Congress. After last week’s loss on guns, he said people were "going to have to sustain some passion about this."
"You outnumber those who argued the other way," he said. "But they’re better organized."
There are plenty of outside groups ready. They include a mayors’ group financed by New York’s Michael Bloomberg; Organizing for Action, the grass-roots organization that grew out of Obama’s re-election campaign; and a variety of other gun control groups.
"You have a number of senators who calculated that the NRA was going to have staying power on this issue," said OFA executive director Jon Carson. "They were more afraid of them than going against the vast majority of their constituents. So our job is to make clear that we are going to keep activated and keep calling them out on this issue."
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that while the voices of the Newtown families were powerful in the gun debate, "it can’t stop there. This issue will change when it is about mothers and fathers protecting their children."
The specifics of what happens next in Congress remain murky.
With the Senate gun control drive aground, House Republican leaders seem unlikely even to hold votes on gun legislation.
Some Republicans have been working on related mental health legislation. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that leaders have made no decisions beyond that. House conservatives have gotten at least 45 signatures on a letter urging Boehner to avoid a gun vote unless a bill has support from more than half of the House Republicans.
There are far more signs of life in the states.
Legislatures in Connecticut, Maryland and New York, all Democratic-leaning states, have passed sweeping laws, chiefly strengthening bans on assault weapons and regulating ammunition. California, where Democrats control the Legislature and governorship, is considering similar legislation.
Colorado, a political swing state with a strong tradition of gun ownership, last month enacted far-reaching legislation banning large capacity ammunition magazines and requiring background checks for private sales. The state was the site of one of 2012’s horrific shootings, when a gunman sprayed bullets into a packed movie theater.
More states in the Northeast appear ready to act.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, is considering signing a bill requiring background checks for private sales. Maine lawmakers are considering requiring background checks for gun-show sales. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering repealing a law giving armed citizens greater latitude in firing their weapons.
Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois and Rhode Island are also considering gun restriction bills.
"It’s unquestionable that the trend is toward strengthening state gun laws," said Laura Cutilletta of the gun-control advocacy group Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
To be sure, more states have enacted laws this year advancing the rights of gun owners.
But those moves, all in GOP-controlled states, have been smaller in scope, in large part because most states had already enacted watershed gun bills.
In Kansas and Nebraska, for example, Republican governors have signed bills granting reciprocity for concealed-carry permit holders from any state. A number of states acted to make concealed-carry permit records confidential, and to bar local government from limiting their use. North Dakota enacted a law expanding the list of places concealed guns are allowed.
Even gun rights advocates describe the measures as narrower, a sign some of them attribute to a rising level of resistance in the states and a contraction of the gun-rights influence.
In Wisconsin, Republicans also were on defense, despite controlling the Legislature and the governorship, unable to enhance concealed-carry rights. They did block legislation requiring background checks for all gun sales, despite appeals from families of victims of one of the two mass shootings in the state last year.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was expected to veto legislation requiring municipalities to sell confiscated guns, instead of destroying them.
It’s clear the fight, already expected at the federal level in 2014, will expand to include state elections.
"We’re prepared," said Jeff Nass, president of WI-Force, a Wisconsin gun-rights group. "I think their loss nationally is going to bring it home to the states next year."
On the other side, Jeri Bonavia of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort said she expects groups such as Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns to spread into state races with advertising pressure that could diminish the NRA’s impact.
"If they do, it neutralizes the NRA’s pressure, and suddenly constituent voices matter more," Bonavia said.