Associated Press
National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre gestures as he speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

OXON HILL, Md. — Conservatives are all but declaring victory on their defense of gun rights, exuding confidence as calls for aggressive controls in the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre have given way to scaled-back expectations to firearm restrictions in Congress.

"They can call me crazy and whatever else they want, but NRA's nearly 5 million members and America's 100 million gun owners will not back down — not now, not ever," an emboldened Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told conservatives gathered at an annual conference. He pointedly ignored President Barack Obama's most restrictive proposals in his speech, using it instead to assail the one that has the potential of getting approved — a near-universal background check for gun owners.

It's a sign that LaPierre — and others at the Conservative Political Action Conference — thinks the nation's largest pro-gun lobby has successfully beaten back the most limiting proposals.

Indeed, a bipartisan deal on near-universal background checks for firearms buyers remains a real possibility. And Congress still could pass a ban on high-capacity magazines. But Democrats haven't been able to muster enough support, even within their own ranks, to push through an assault weapons ban.

That's by far the most restrictive of the series of changes Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have sought following the Connecticut school shooting that killed 26 children and educators and a series of deadly shootings in Aurora, Colo., Oak Creek, Wis., and elsewhere.

In the hallways of the Conservative Political Action Conference, many activists echoed LaPierre. Few of them talked with urgency about the outcome of an assault weapons ban or some of the other proposed restrictions. And many exuded a quiet confidence that a divided Congress won't act on even the more modest proposal to implement mandatory background checks.

"I don't think it's going to get done," said Randy Smith, a California technology company owner. "There's no way."

Mel Wilcox, a medical professor from Birmingham, Ala., who owns guns and hunts, said he "doesn't really have a problem" with the mandatory background checks but said he didn't expect Congress to act. "I don't think they'll ever push something through," he said.

Several activists pointed to simple arithmetic to explain their confidence in limited gun measures: Republicans remain adamantly opposed to restrictions to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and several Senate Democrats are facing re-election next year in rural states populated with many gun owners.

"There are too many Democrats who know they won't last long," said William Temple, a tea party member from Brunswick, Ga.