Most Democrats have long shied away from the gun-control issue as political poison. And while the death toll in Newtown is ratcheting up the pressure for the president to take what he calls “meaningful action,” it is not clear that he can—or will—mount a legislative effort against the power of the National Rifle Association.

A White House adviser said Obama’s words were not mere rhetoric. “He did speak emotionally after Tucson and Aurora, but I do think yesterday seemed different. He does mean it and will follow through,” he said.

But while no decisions have been made, the adviser said, “if we regress into our corners and retrod the ground of the gun-control debate, I’m not sure anyone will be well served by that.” Instead, this person spoke of a “broader look” that could include improved mental-health services and efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unbalanced.

If that is the president’s course, he will disappoint gun-control advocates and those Democrats who passionately believe that tighter restrictions are needed to curtail what has become a depressingly regular series of mass shootings.