In the wake of the deadly shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat who represents that Denver suburb, said the incident will pressure Congress to renew its debate over gun control.
"I don't think we can avoid it," Perlmutter told CBS.
But lawmakers avoided it quite easily when Congress returned to work Monday, readily offering condolences to the victims while dodging all talk of the need for tighter gun restrictions.
As with previous mass slayings, the attack last week by a lone gunman that left 12 moviegoers dead and dozens wounded was expected to reignite the national debate over whether guns are too readily available. But it was obvious on Capitol Hill that little legislative action is likely to result from the latest killings, particularly in an election year. Not since 1994 has Congress passed serious gun control legislation.
"How can you make sense of something that is so senseless?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor without reference to gun laws.
Lawmakers are shying away from calls for new gun restrictions because gun control doesn't sit well with many voters, particularly in battleground states like Nevada and Virginia. Indeed, passage of the assault weapon ban in 1994 cost so many Democratic supporters their seats that it helped make Republicans the new majority.
Among those ousted in part because of his support of the assault weapon ban was House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., the first speaker to lose re-election since 1862.
"As a result of that election, you don't really see the big push for gun control that you used to see in the '80s and early '90s," said Erich Pratt, a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, a pro-Second Amendment lobbying group.
Pratt and other pro-gun groups point to what they describe as "back door" gun control measures, like the Obama administration's ban on the import of surplus M-1 military rifles from South Korea. Such measures have allowed President Obama to reassure gun control advocates like Sarah Brady that he's supportive of their cause, but without jeopardizing his standing in pro-gun, battleground states like Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia, say gun rights advocates.
"After losing enough elections," Pratt said, "they finally got the point that they have to do more back door stuff on this."
Aboard Air Force One Sunday, as Obama flew to be with the families of victims in Colorado, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that there would be no push to renew the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004. Rather, Obama would increase restrictions on guns "under existing law," he said.
The assault ban would not have covered any of the legally acquired weapons used by the accused Colorado shooter, James Holmes.
Very few lawmakers ventured to the floor of the House and Senate on Monday to talk about the shooting. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat whose Colorado district borders Aurora, appeared on the floor to offer his condolences to the victims but made no mention of gun control.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., was one of the few lawmakers to chastise his colleagues for shying away from the debate.
"Any time there's a mass killing spree," Blumenauer said, "I hope against hope for a more enlightened reaction."