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The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman opened fire on school children and staff in Newtown, Connecticut.

Adrees Latif

The Friday morning shooting of 20 children and six adults in a primary-school classroom brought renewed calls for stricter rules on who can buy what kind of gun, especially powerful rifles designed to kill many people in a short span of time.

"All victims of gun violence deserve leaders who have the courage to participate in a meaningful discussion about our gun laws – and how they can be reformed and better enforced to prevent gun violence and death in America," Captain Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona congresswoman and shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords, posted on Facebook. "This can no longer wait."

But it will probably have to. It's unlikely the United States will get tougher federal gun-control laws any time soon.

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President Barack Obama hinted at more decisive steps to prevent future mass shootings in his statement Friday afternoon. "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. … And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."

But gun-control advocates have felt let down by the President before: He didn't press for tougher gun laws in the wake of a summer shooting in Aurora, Colo., that left a dozen movie-goers dead. The incident revived memories of other armed rampages – the 1999 school murders in Littleton, Colo., the 2007 killings at Virginia Tech, the deadly 2011 shootings in which Ms. Giffords was injured – none of which brought about legislation to prevent the next massacre. And there's little to suggest that Friday's shootings will be different.

"We've had … highly publicized mass shootings for about the last 15 years or so," says Eugene Volokh, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles. "People said, 'Ah, this is what's going to lead the change in public attitudes toward gun control.' It hasn't happened."

If anything, America has more lax gun laws, and a public more hostile to regulation, than it did 40 years ago. As of last week, there isn't a single state where carrying a concealed weapon is illegal. "In the 1970s, you could get very substantial support for a ban on handguns," said Duke University public policy professor Philip Cook.

In addition to full-throated defences of the right to bear arms, there's still extensive debate as to whether stricter gun control would make people safer: "Someone who's bent on mass murder, who's going to create a heinous crime, isn't going to balk at gun-control laws," Prof. Cook said.

Many advocates of looser gun laws argue that criminals will get guns anyway so it's better to let law-abiding citizens have them, too.

The National Rifle Association did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

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Police found two handguns and a .223-calibre rifle at the scene of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. NBC News reported Friday evening that all three guns were legally obtained and registered to the shooter's mother. Reports on the number of successive shots fired suggest the gun used had a relatively high-capacity magazine. The more rounds a magazine has, the more shots you can fire without pausing to reload.

In Connecticut, assault weapons are illegal but high-capacity magazines are permitted, Prof. Cook said. A nationwide ban on both assault rifles and high-capacity magazines expired in 2004; it looks unlikely Congress will reinstate it.

If Americans do see stricter gun laws in the near future, Prof. Cook said, they are likely to be at the state level, where it's easier to achieve consensus. An assault-weapon ban probably wouldn't affect gun violence over all, he said. But it would make it harder to shoot a lot of people all at once.

"Those [mass shootings] have been coming fast and furious in the last year in the U.S. And I think that they really do terrorize people – way out of proportion to the number of people killed."

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