WASHINGTON -- The mass shooting of children and school officials on December 14 in the state of Connecticut has sparked an urgent national conversation in the United States about the country's gun laws -- or lack thereof.
As the funerals of the victims continue, key elected officials have declared that Americans can no longer ignore the fact that the country's constitutionally protected right to gun ownership is exacting a terrible toll.
The worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened in 2007, when 32 people were killed by a disturbed student at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
In the five years since then, there have been at least seven similar massacres across the United States.
But none has elicited as much public outrage and calls for change as the latest killings, at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, which resulted in the deaths of 20 students and six adults at the school, the gunman's mother at home, and the gunman himself.
On the political level, President Barack Obama began the conversation, when he eulogized the victims.
"As a country, we have been through this too many times, whether it's an elementary school in Newtown [Connecticut] or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora [Colorado] or a street corner in Chicago," he said.
"These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children and we're going to have to come together to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
Obama has been joined by senior politicians who until recently strongly defended gun rights in the United States.
One of them is Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat-West Virginia), who ran a campaign commercial back in 2010 in which he was shown personally firing a rifle into a piece of legislation, to demonstrate his pro-gun credentials.
Speaking on NBC News, he suggested that he was now open to restrictions on assault rifles, saying, "I don’t know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle."
Manchin called on "his friends" at the National Rifle Association (NRA) to sit down with gun-control advocates and come up with a "sensible, reasonable approach."
"It’s time to move beyond rhetoric," he said. "We need to sit down and have a common sense discussion and move in a reasonable way. This has changed the dialogue. And it should move beyond dialogue. We need action."
The shocking events in Newtown may lead to a shift in the gun-control debate.
Assault weapons have been used in several recent mass shootings, including this most recent one. Congress passed a temporary ban on assault weapons and high-ammunition clips back in 1994. But when that ban expired 10 years later, lawmakers didn’t renew it.
Until now, it was seen by many politicians as too politically risky.
As is well known, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the right to "bear arms," but the precise scope of that right has been debated for decades.
Recently, the Supreme Court affirmed citizens' individual right to own guns and rejected state and local laws that sought to limit sales of some types of weapons.
And to date, the powerful and wealthy 4 million-member NRA has targeted any politician who has sought to put forward any limitations on firearm sales.
But Daniel Nagin, a professor of public policy and criminology at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that Manchin’s abrupt change of heart could be the start of a paradigm shift in Congress. “My understanding is that Senator Manchin has been sort of a very public supporter of the NRA and for a person in that position to say what he did seems to me to be quite significant," he says.
Manchin isn’t alone. Representative John Yarmuth, a Democrat from the gun-loving state of Kentucky, issued a statement that said: "I have been largely silent on the issue of gun violence over the last six years.... The National Rifle Association has spent untold millions of dollars instilling fear in our citizens and our politicians. I believe it is more rational to fear guns than the illusory political power of the NRA."
In the wake of last week’s shooting, Senator Diane Feinstein (Democrat-California) said she will introduce legislation to ban assault weapons in January.
Republicans have been largely silent on whether they would support that bill, but many have called for a "cooling-off period" before any new laws are written. According to Nagin, the rhetoric from both sides also has to cool down.
"Unless we can somehow step back from this extreme ideological tone, I think it’s going to be very difficult from any real progress to be made on the issue," he said. "What we really need to be able to do is to talk about how to balance the legitimate uses of guns – both for things like hunting and some forms of self-protection -- with the protection of public safety.”
Americans already accept regulations on everything from alcohol to driving to the press, and gun ownership should be no different, he added.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the percentage of people who favor tough gun regulations rose sharply after last week's shooting.
Fifty percent of those surveyed after the tragedy agreed that "gun ownership should have strong regulations or restrictions," up from 42 percent before. The number of people favoring a ban on assault style weapons rose 6 points, to 60 percent.
For its part, the group that usually has the most to say during gun-control debates has remained silent. In a statement, the National Rifle Association said only, "Until the facts are thoroughly known, [we] will not have any comment."