A gunman opens fire on a crowd of innocent people and the carnage and bloodshed of a deadly mass shooting grips yet another US town.
An all-too familiar cycle then plays out: prayers are shared, memorials are held, debate rages around gun control, but little changes — and the clock ticks closer to the next massacre where more innocent lives will be lost.
Those in favour of gun control ask why it has to be like this. Our children go to school, concerts and shopping centres in fear of being blasted to death in a hail of bullets, they say. Meanwhile, the staggering death toll of those killed in mass shootings climbs. It's a scenario that plays out on average every few days somewhere in the US and repeatedly raises the question: "Why is more value placed on gun ownership than it is on human lives?"
The answer, more often than not, references the power of the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), a gun lobbying group, and its chokehold on Congress and past and present administrations.
"The NRA has bought the White House," one Twitter user said following last weekend's dual mass shootings in El Pasom Texas and Ohio, Dayton.
Another wrote; "The NRA has too much power over the US", echoing the sentiments of countless others.
On Saturday, Democratic presidential candidates placed responsibility for inaction on gun violence in the hands of President Donald Trump and the NRA.
"If most Americans insist that something be done and it doesn't happen, it means we need fundamental reform," Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said at a presidential forum on gun violence in downtown Des Moines.
But what is it about this particular organisation that makes it so seemingly influential above all others?
According to Christopher Devine, Assistant Professor of Political science at the University of Dayton, it's not about money or donations, despite common belief.
"The NRA is influential on US politicians, no doubt, but the reason for that is often misunderstood," he told news.com.au.
"The group is a political action committee that has campaign contribution limits."
A political action committee can't donate more than US$5,000 to a candidate in a single year. But federal law allows individuals, corporations and unions to spend any amount with outside groups, including the NRA's political arm, to influence candidate elections, provided they don't co-ordinate their spending operations with the candidates they support.
"I tend to blame voters more than the NRA because people get what they demand and the gun lobby in large part gets as much power as the voters give them," Mr Devine said.
Mr Devine told news.com.au that gun ownership has shaped the brand of the party and its conservative values.
"The NRA is one of the most visible advocacy groups in the US and focuses on issues that have a lot of merit for Americans and Republicans," he said.
In fact, no other organisation is comparable in terms of the level of power held over the US Congress, according to Mr Devine.
"The clarity of what the NRA stands for is so clear and so central to what a lot of Republicans and conservatives prioritise as issues in politics and define themselves by," he continued.
"Gun rights, along with abortion or criminal justice, is one of many things that sends strong signals to Republican voters, and the NRA dominates that.
"So getting the NRA on side if you're a Republican can be a good signal you're a reliable conservative.
"That's their power; The nature of their influence is more in signalling who is an acceptable candidate."
AMERICANS' LOVE OF GUNS
It's not that Americans care about guns above all else, it's that it's an "easy issue" to take a strong position on based purely on emotion and without being informed, he added.
According to a 2017 survey, about 40 per cent of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one. There were almost 11,000 deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter involving a firearm in 2017. And the US has the highest rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm in the developed world.
"It's an accessible issue so people feel they can enter the debate really confidentially based on emotion," Mr Devine said.
"With guns, people aren't as inclined to step back and figure out what's actually going on before stating what their opinion is like they would on something like health care policy or Medicare, which have a lot of technical points that are harder to weigh in on without knowing basic facts.
"That's why the NRA has such power and salience as opposed to why not tax related organisation or the US Chamber of Commerce — people find those issues less accessible."
Most recently, the Trump administration has been accused of pandering to the organisation, with the president dodging the issue of gun control in favour of blaming "mentally ill monsters" and "video games" for the twin mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton last weekend.
Following the tragedies, in which a total of 31 people were killed, the president urged Democrats and Republicans to "come together" and enact stricter background checks.
"I want to see it happen," he said.
But hours later, rather than proclaim in a White House address that he wants Congress to tackle the gun violence epidemic by imposing tougher restrictions on firearms sales, Mr Trump repeated what many Democrats believe is an old trope propagated by the NRA.
"Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun," Mr Trump said, in phrasing that echoed a talking point repeatedly used by the NRA and gun rights advocates who say that "guns don't kill people, people kill people".
Several critics have also pointed to an incident in early 2018 when Mr Trump promised to take action after 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida, but backed down after the NRA weighed in.
NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre, a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment with his bombastic defence of guns, freedom and country in the aftermath of every mass shooting, once infamously said: "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun".
'PRISONER TO THE NRA'
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week criticised Mr Trump for failing to address the issue of gun control during his televised speech in response to the latest mass shootings.
"When he can't talk about guns when he talks about gun violence, it shows the president remains prisoner to the gun lobby and the NRA," she said.
The Democrats have largely agreed on the broad contours of the policy debate, emphasising the need to close background check loopholes, ban assault weapons and fund research into gun violence. Most of the candidates also called on campaign finance reform as a solution to combat the influence of the NRA on elections.
A trio of more moderate candidates — Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar — all called on gun owners to get involved in the gun control effort.
"If we can ever look at this issue as not a political issue but a public health issue, we know what to do. The majority of gun owners, the majority of NRA members, all of us think universal background checks make a heck of a lot of sense," Mr Bullock said, noting he uses guns and has taken his son hunting. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll showed a slight majority of NRA members — and more than three quarters of gun owners polled — support stronger background checks.
PRESSURE TO ACT
Republicans, long allied with the NRA, have resisted stricter laws on firearm and ammunition sales but some are inching toward advocating reforms.
Senator Lindsey Graham announced Monday he is co-authoring red flag legislation, which would allow law enforcement agencies and relatives to temporarily take guns from people they suspect to be dangerous to themselves or others.
But most in Mr Trump's camp have remained silent on the prospect of reforms including expanding background checks or banning military-style assault weapons like those used in the weekend attacks.
"A Republican candidate failing to secure the NRA's endorsement can be a real limitation and hindrance on their campaign especially if talking a primary," Mr Devine said.
"Especially in areas where gun use for hunting or farming is more valued."
Two gun bills passed the House this year but have since languished in the Republican-controlled Senate. One of them would require federal background checks for all firearms sales and transfers, including those online or at gun shows. The second bill allows an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases.
Mr Trump on Friday revived his interest in having Congress take a look at expanding federal background checks and other gun safety laws long pushed by Democrats, insisting he will be able to get Republicans on board. Mr McConnell, in a shift, said he's now willing to consider those ideas "front and centre" when Congress — currently in recess — returns in autumn.
"I think I have a greater influence now over the Senate," Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump said he had "been speaking to the NRA, and others, so that their very strong views can be fully represented and respected".
The NRA, in a statement on Thursday, indicated it opposed further gun restrictions.
AUSTRALIAN NRA SCANDAL
The NRA has been among the most powerful lobbying groups in US history, and despite a series of high-profile crises in recent months, still wields tremendous clout on Capitol Hill.
It spent US$1.6 million in the first half of 2019 lobbying members of Congress against legislation that would expand background on people seeking to purchase guns, CNBC reported, citing disclosure reports.
The group also endorsed Mr Trump's campaign in 2016 and spent some US$30 million in support of his election, according to funding trackers.
The ability of the NRA to propel a politician or party to power hasn't gone unnoticed in Australia.
Earlier this year, One Nation officials went into damage control after the release of footage showed them soliciting political donations from the American gun lobby group.
The secret recordings of senior figures James Ashby and Steve Dickson revealed they wanted millions of dollars in political donations from the NRA and other US gun advocates and discussed softening One Nation policies on gun ownership as they tried to secure the funding.
In one of the recordings, Mr Dickson was recorded telling representatives of Koch Industries that One Nation could "change the voting system" if the party had more funding.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison slammed the party and alleged it was attempting to sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidder.
"I find that abhorrent," he said.
"When John Howard put those laws in under a Coalition government, they were put in to protect Australians."
THE 'BIGGEST THREAT'
But the NRA has faced recent trials, including the ouster of its president Oliver North over a conflict about lavish company spending, and the resignation this month of three board members.
NRA finances are in turmoil. Contributions to the group sank more than US$26 million, or 21 per cent, from 2016 to 2017, NRA figures show.
It ran a deficit of US$31.8 million in the 2017 reporting cycle, after racking up a US$14.8 million deficit the prior year when it spent big backing Mr Trump, according to an audit obtained by OpenSecrets.
"If the NRA ever had a weak point, it's right now," moderate Republican congressman Pete King told The Hill newspaper Monday.
"They are weakened. And all of us, including the president, should take advantage of that."
But Mr Devine predicted that the NRA would only lose core supporters if it becomes "stigmatised". He said the "biggest threat" to the group was "not being seen as a trustworthy organisation to manage funds" by those on the right.
"It's kept its power even through being battered by folks on the left but I haven't seen any evidence that has changed any minds on the right," Mr Devine told news.com.au.
"The source of its power is very much a partisan one; as long as its embraced on the right it's maintaining power.
"The real key is, can you get Republicans to change their minds, particularly when people cling tightly to groups?"
That's unlikely, according to Senator Chuck Schumer.
"We've seen it before … an awful shooting occurs … (at) realDonaldTrump expresses interest in helping," he wrote on Twitter over the weekend.
"Republicans try to get him off the hook with lesser measures.