By Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

WASHINGTON • The passionate discussion over gun ownership often is cast as a debate between the National Rifle Association and people who don’t own guns.

Or between the public, which wants stricter gun laws, and a polarized Congress.

But another clear dividing line is the view toward guns between men and women.

An array of national polls this month show a double-digit gender gap between men and women on gun issues.

In a Pew Research Center poll, two thirds of women surveyed said they favor a ban on semiautomatic weapons, while fewer than half of men supported such a prohibition.

Similarly, a New York Times/CBS poll showed a 14 percent gender gap when asking simply if stricter gun laws are desirable.

And in yet another poll, this one conducted by United Technologies/National Journal, more than a third off women would go as far as to ban handguns — an unlikely development that just  22 percent of men would support.

Congress takes its biggest gun-related step of the year tomorrow when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on gun violence with NRA headWayne LaPierre scheduled to be on hand.

One question now is whether anti-gun women can exert their muscle in Congress — and another is whether members who don’t embrace substantial changes feel the wrath of women at election time.

The capacity of female voters to sway elections is no secret, displayed in Barack Obama’s 13-point and 11-point winning margin among women voters in his last two election victories. But can they sway public policy decisions?

Democratic pollster Margie Omero believes that women feel so strongly that guns are now at the core of so-called women’s issues.

“I think we could see this issue mobilize women voters the way we saw issues mobilize women last time around,” said Omero, who has blogged about the gender gap.

If Congress doesn’t listen? “It would be another sign to women voters that Washington has become a mess and is not paying attention to them,” she contended.

Omero observed that pressure will be coming from One Million Moms for Gun Control, an organization formed after the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut but already with dozens of chapters around the country. And Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned her Arizona congressional seat a year after nearly dying from a gunshot will be leading a new lobbying effort aimed gun laws.

Omero acknowledges that it is too early to know whether women can bring sufficient pressure. Besides aiming at Republicans, the women feeling strongly about the issues also must persuade red-state Democrats fearing backlash.

“I think the question is not whether Democrats will be worried about voting for these bills. The question is whether Republicans will worry about being held accountable,” she argued.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, believes the gender gap may be rooted in women’s lack of experience with guns. Wagner lives in a household well stocked with guns but she doesn’t shoot them, she noted.

“We (women) support the Second Amendment and we support those in our families that use them for hunting and sport and for protection. There are plenty of women who conceal and carry, I know a number of them,” she said.

Wagner, an NRA member, said she believes the nation has yet to have a needed dialogue on mental health and other issues related to guns that don’t require federal involvement.

“If you want armed guards in your schools, then that’s something an individual school board can take up,” she said.