After the massacre at Columbine High School eight years ago this week, there were loud and dramatic calls for Congress to pass stronger gun control laws. But in the months and years that followed, the Republican-controlled Congress worked to relax gun laws
The shooting deaths of 32 people, as well as the gunman, at Virginia Tech Monday now spark the question, will the Democratic Congress call for new action on gun control?
At a speech at the National Press club luncheon Tuesday, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) spoke about the war, taxes and his work as a powerful committee chairman. But when he was asked whether the Virginia Tech massacre would change the political debate on gun control, he sounded completely powerless.
Rangel sighed, saying "I asked that question in a group of Democrats today, and the people that I expected to say no, said 'No.'"
In other words, lawmakers' positions are completely entrenched — and not at all along party lines.
"It's a regional thing, it's a cultural thing and it's a sad thing, but it's some type of cult," Rangel said. "'Don't touch; don't take the gun from my dead, cold hands...' and I don't understand it, but obviously there is a political difference about that."
Rangel may not understand it, but some other Democrats do, especially those from rural districts where hunting is a family sport and firearms are thought of as tools.
Members of Congress shuffle down a long dark hallway in the basement of the Capitol building, coming out of the first Democratic Caucus meeting since their spring break. They were supposed to talk about taxes and the agenda, but instead, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) put it, the shooting cast a pall over everything.
"When we're doing our legislative work, we'll do our legislative work. Right now, we talked a lot about the tragedy," Pelosi said, "and how members whose communities have experienced similar things like Columbine can be a comfort to Virginia."
Pelosi is in a difficult position. Some in her caucus, especially the newer Democrats that Pelosi likes to call "the majority makers," are from rural or suburban areas where many consider gun ownership a personal right. I spoke with several Democrats in conservative districts, including
Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth (D-SD) represents a conservative district. She said she worries the Democrats will jump to an anti-gun stance too quickly. But any move to regulate firearms risks losing critical supporters in her district.
On the other hand, many in the Democratic Party crave swift, decisive action to show that Democrats will not stand for this kind of terrible violence. This yearning is especially strong in people like Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed in an accidental shooting, and New York's Carolyn McCarthy, who's husband was killed and son was severely injured in 1993 when a gunman entered their commuter train car and randomly sprayed bullets.
McCarthy said she plans to push hard for what she calls common sense gun restrictions, such as renewing the ban on assault weapons. But she acknowledged that it will be tough.
"We're in charge now, and there's this myth out there that if Democrats stand up on reducing gun violence, the new members, especially the freshmen, will end up losing their seats," McCarthy said.
McCarthy calls it a myth. But many Democrats remain wary of the pro-gun lobby's political power and the voters who support gun-rights. The question now is whether seeing the senseless carnage at Virginia Tech changes anyone's mind about how easy it should be to own guns in America.