Will Latest Tragedy Reshape Political Landscape?

President Obama, at a memorial service in Newtown, Ct., Sunday night, talked about using the power of his office to try to prevent more shooting tragedies. Do advocates of banning assault weapons have a chance of succeeding this time around?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's talk more about the events in Newtown with Cokie Roberts who joins us most Mondays. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: You know, you could - in the woman at the end of Robert's piece there, you could really hear the emotion last night. You know, it was a powerful speech from the president. He talked about using the power of his office to try to prevent more tragedies. What do you think he actually means by that?

ROBERTS: Well, proponents of gun control are hoping that what he means is that he's ready to get behind a new ban on assault weapons. And even if he's not, they're prepared to go forward with a bill. Senator - California Senator Dianne Feinstein said so yesterday on NBC.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession. Not retroactively, but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than ten bullets.

ROBERTS: Senator Feinstein, of course, came to office as mayor of San Francisco after her predecessor was shot down, and she shepherded the last ban on those assault weapons of mass destruction through Congress in 1993. But David, that ban expired in 2004 and has never been renewed.

GREENE: OK. So we have a Democratic Senator who's pushing the ban again. I mean, we should say that polls show the country's so divided with a lot of people not believing in stricter gun control. I mean, is that why Congress hasn't re-upped the ban or...

ROBERTS: Well, public opinion definitely has shifted to - after the Kennedy shootings it was very much for gun control and it has shifted. And Democrats, starting with President Clinton became convinced that their votes for that ban, that assault weapons ban, cost them the majority in the House in 1994. Now, there's not of evidence to support that. There were a lot of other things going on, but it became an article of faith among Democrats that saying the word gun would get them in trouble.

And the National Rifle Association has done everything it can to reinforce that view. It's a single issue. They brook no exceptions, even with the Police Officers of America are lined up against them and they have succeeded in recent years in loosening gun laws around the country, allowing more concealed weapons and allowing them in more places.

GREENE: This is a horrific tragedy. It is not the first such tragedy involving gun violence this year. I mean - but do you see something changing from the events in Newtown. Is there any reason to believe that advocates of an assault weapons ban have a better chance of succeeding this time?

ROBERTS: Well, I certainly wouldn't have said so before Friday, but this is a particularly horrific event, and what appears to be presidential resolve, now, might change things. There's another very important factor here, David, and that's the number of women now in Congress. When the assault weapons ban passed before, only 23 percent of Republican men voted for it, but 67 percent of Republican women did. And on the Democratic side, 89 percent of women went for the ban compared to only 72 percent of men.

We now have the highest number of women ever in Congress so it could make a difference. But we should say that this tragedy not only has us talking once again about guns, but also about mental illness and the woefully inadequate ways we deal with that in this country. We heard that women in Robert's piece talking about video games. I don't know if anything comes of it, but it's definitely useful to have policymakers thinking about it.

GREENE: It's amazing how an event can totally change the conversation. We were just thinking the deficit deadline, that the fiscal cliff - last week, leading into Friday. I mean, is this going to impact those discussions somehow?

ROBERTS: You know, I think it could. I think that when the country is so focused on something - I mean, at church yesterday, it was all people could deal with and the sense of being so affected might make the politicians feel like they have to be grownups. And I think that, you know, now see that Speaker Boehner is ready to take the debt ceiling off the table for a year. That comes after his offer to raise tax rates for millionaires.

There were talks over the weekend among staff. I think that there's a breakthrough likely here, and the president is in a stronger position. Some movement is likely.

GREENE: All right. Political commentator Cokie Roberts, it is always good to be with you. You can hear her most Mondays, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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