But the gun lobby has been explicit that it won’t be giving in. The fight will consume valuable political oxygen, perhaps all of what’s available to a reelected president whose party controls only half of Capitol Hill.

That means other ambitious subject areas – immigration reform, energy and environmental policy, a major infrastructure initiative – will have to wait. Moreover, the coming brinksmanship over spending and budget issues could further poison the chances of action, potentially grinding Washington to an effective halt.

President George W. Bush found out the hard way that political capital doesn’t last long into a second term, even if the president tries to spend it with a friendly Congress. Bush’s push for Social Security reform not only went nowhere, it helped sow the seeds of the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.

This fight over guns has the potential to be more than that for Obama, though. After a campaign devoid of much inspiration, a passionate debate that gets to the heart of the nation’s culture may be what the recently reelected president needs.