The former astronaut whose wife was shot in the head in 2011 and critically wounded said he was optimistic Congress will eventually pass expanded background checks for gun purchasers but that the effort is difficult because of the NRA, which has a "100-year head start" and a powerful lobby.
"As I speak to a number of U.S. senators and members of the House, they are thinking about their next election and how much money the NRA is going to spend," Kelly said.
Asked by The Salt Lake Tribune how he could convince red-state politicians, Kelly said it will take serious conversations and a realization by the members that their constituents want gun laws changed. Some 82 percent of Utahns back expanded background checks, according to a poll earlier this year.
"You try to convince them that the people they're hearing from are a very vocal minority and that most of their constituents are actually OK with some reasonable legislation to try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill," Kelly said, adding that too many politicians are putting politics before lives.
"You know, it's concerning because I've sat in members' offices who have said to me 'I agree that there should be a universal background checks; I agree we need to address high capacity magazines and assault weapons, and I can't vote for any of that,' " Kelly said. "That's a problem."
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for one, has said he opposes any attempt to tighten gun regulations as an assault on citizens' Second Amendment rights, and unsuccessfully attempted a filibuster to block any firearms legislation.
He dismisses surveys showing widespread support even in the Beehive State for expanded background checks, saying such poll results are trumped up because they don't point out to respondents that background checks would require the government to collect information on who owns what guns, which is far less popular with the public.
Kelly and Giffords have launched Americans for Responsible Solutions to push for more gun-control laws and Kelly vowed Tuesday to throw its weight behind any politician seeking reform.
The NRA did not return a call for comment.
All of Utah's members of Congress have received an "A" rating from the group and none of them have indicated support for any gun-control legislation.