Hoyer: Dems lost fear of gun reform after Newtown

Hoyer also suggested that a 2008 Supreme Court decision granting individuals the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment has eliminated many of the barriers to gun reform and helped to steer the current debate.

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"Americans believe, and the Court has said, they have a right to have guns — handguns and long-guns, rifles," Hoyer said. "But the Court said some constraints are constitutional, and I think the public believes that certain restraints make sense. So I think we'll get some change in that regard."

Hoyer's comments arrived just minutes before Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) unveiled a plan to expand criminal and mental health background checks to some private gun sales, including those conducted at gun shows and over the Internet.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), which supported an even broader expansion of background checks following the 1999 massacre in Columbine, has since reversed course to oppose any such extension. The group was quick to issue a statement Wednesday hammering the Manchin-Toomey bill as ineffective.

"Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools," the NRA said in a brief statement.

Of the NRA's evolving position on background checks, Hoyer said simply, "I think they were right then and wrong now."

A bipartisan deal on background checks lends gun reform a good deal of momentum in the Senate, where Republicans vowing a filibuster don't appear to have the 40 votes to follow through on that threat. It remains unclear, however, how House GOP leaders will approach any gun legislation the Senate sends over.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday refused to say what his strategy will be.

“As I’ve made clear, any bill that passes the Senate, we’re going to review it,” Boehner told reporters after a meeting of the House Republican conference. “In the meantime, we’re going to continue to have hearings looking at the source of violence in our country. We’re going to wait and see what actually passes over in the Senate.”

Hoyer said he has talked to neither Boehner nor Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) about their plans for gun legislation in the lower chamber. But if the Senate package continues to gather GOP support, he added, there will be real pressure on House leaders to bring the proposal to the floor.

"Assuming the Senate passes some legislation in a bipartisan fashion," Hoyer said, "I think that there will be a lot of public demand that the House act."