By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Since his 7-year-old son, Daniel, was gunned down in his elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, 3-1/2 years ago, Mark Barden has been an outspoken advocate for gun control.
Time and again, he has watched with disappointment as Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Senate blocked gun control measures, saying they infringed on the right to bear arms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Congress has not passed major gun control legislation since 1994.
But in the aftermath of Sunday's rampage in which a U.S.-born gunman claiming allegiance to various Islamist militant groups killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Barden is encouraged the Senate is moving toward a vote on two modest gun control laws next week, even if they fail to pass.
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"One of the hard lessons I've had to learn in this is that you have to accept any forward motion as a victory," he said in a phone interview. "Even if it's not a 'win,' in terms of legislation that's passed, but if it's generating more conversation - it's agonizingly slow, but the needle is moving."
Several family members who lost relatives in the December 2012 Newtown attack, in which a gunman killed 20 young children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said they were cautiously optimistic the debate over gun control measures had shifted following the Orlando massacre, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S history.
Many have spent the years since the Newtown shooting pressing Congress to restrict access to dangerous assault rifles of the type used in mass shootings in Newtown, Orlando and San Bernardino, California.
On Thursday, the Senate moved close to a vote on two bills favored by Democrats that would expand background checks for buyers and block individuals on U.S. terrorism watch lists from purchasing firearms.
The movement came after U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and fellow Democrats talked on the Senate floor for nearly 15 straight hours to demand that Congress act on gun control.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would meet with the powerful National Rifle Association gun rights lobby to discuss prohibiting people on watch lists from acquiring guns.
About 71 percent of Americans, including eight out of 10 Democrats and nearly six out of 10 Republicans, favor at least moderate regulations and restrictions on guns, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from Monday to Thursday. That was up from 60 percent in late 2013 and late 2014.
'CHANGE IS ALREADY HERE'
Some Newtown relatives said the mere fact the Senate took up the legislation so quickly after the Orlando attack was a victory.
"It took us four months to get to this point after Sandy Hook," said Erica Lafferty Smegielski, whose mother, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, was the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School and died in the attack. "It took us four days after Orlando. No matter the outcome, the change is already here."
Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed at Sandy Hook, said she believed common-sense gun control was "inevitable" given the growing sense of outrage among Americans following a string of mass shootings. But she acknowledged that progress would be slow and that even the bills currently under consideration were "low-hanging fruit."
"Sandy Hook was the start of this change," she said. "I very much believe that Orlando will be the culmination of it."
Other families affected by mass shootings have added their voices to the debate. At a news conference on Thursday with Senate Democratic leaders, the Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins were killed in June 2015 by a gunman at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, said gun control could prevent future tragedies.
"Hate becomes deadly when we make it far too easy for those intent on causing harm to get their hands on a gun," she said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Alana Wise in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)