WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama was launching a widespread effort to curb gun violence Wednesday in an urgent effort to build on the growing political consensus over tightening gun restrictions following last week’s massacre of children at a Connecticut school.
Obama was tasking Vice-President Joe Biden, a longtime gun control advocate with decades of experience in the Senate, with leading the effort. In remarks from the White House on Wednesday, Obama was set to outline a process for pursuing policy changes, though he was not expected to call for specific measures.
The president has vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to safeguard the nation’s children after Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A gunman carrying an arsenal of ammunition and a high-powered, military-style rifle killed six adults and 20 children, all of them 6 and 7 years old. Funerals for the victims continued Wednesday, along with the wake for the school’s beloved principal.
The shooting has prompted several congressional gun-rights supporters to consider new legislation to control firearms, and there are concerns that their willingness to engage could fade as the shock and sorrow over the shooting eases.
The most powerful supporter of gun owners and the gun industry, the National Rifle Association, broke its silence Tuesday, four days after the shooting. In a statement, it pledged “to help to make sure this never happens again” and has scheduled a news conference for Friday.
With the NRA promising “meaningful contributions” and Obama vowing “meaningful action,” the challenge in Washington is to turn words into action. Ideas so far have ranged from banning people from buying more than one gun a month to arming teachers.
The challenge will be striking the right balance with protecting the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Firearms are in a third or more of U.S. households, and suspicion runs deep of an overbearing government whenever it proposes expanding federal authority.
Many pro-gun lawmakers also have called for a greater focus on mental health issues and the impact of violent entertainment like video games. Obama also prefers a holistic approach, with aides saying stricter gun laws alone are not the answer.
“It’s a complex problem that requires more than one solution,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. “It calls for not only re-examining our gun laws and how well we enforce them, but also for engaging mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, educators, parents and communities to find those solutions.”
Still, much of the immediate focus is on gun control, an issue that has been dormant in Washington for years despite several mass shootings. Obama expended little political capital on gun issues during his first term, despite several mass shootings, including a movie theatre attack in Colorado in the midst of this year’s presidential campaign.
The White House has begun to signal that Obama may be more proactive on gun issues now.
Carney said Obama was “actively supportive” of legislation to reinstate a ban on assault-style weapons that expired in 2004. The president long has supported a ban but exerted little effort to get it passed during his first term.
Obama also would support closing a gun show loophole allowing people to buy arms from private dealers without background checks and would be interested in legislation limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines, Carney said.
The policy process Obama was announcing Wednesday was expected to include input from the departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services. The heads of those agencies met with Obama at the White House on Monday. The Department of Homeland Security is also expected to play a key role.
Pressure for change has come from several sources this week.
As shares in publicly traded gun manufacturers dropped, the largest firearms maker in the United States said Tuesday it was being put up for sale by its owner, private equity group Cerberus Capital Management, which called the shooting a “watershed event” in the debate over gun control. Freedom Group International makes Bushmaster rifles, the weapons thought to have been used in Friday’s killings.
In California, proposed legislation would increase the restrictions on purchasing ammunition by requiring buyers to get a permit, undergo a background check and pay a fee.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors wrote Obama and Congress calling for “stronger gun laws, a reversal of the culture of violence in this country, a commission to examine violence in the nation, and more adequate funding for the mental health system.”
The mayors asked for a ban on assault weapons and other high-capacity magazines, like those reportedly used in the school shooting; a stronger national background check system for gun purchasers; and stronger penalties for straw purchases of guns, in which legal buyers acquire weapons for other people.
Formerly pro-gun Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said “a thoughtful debate about how to change laws” is coming soon. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has said the debate must include guns and mental health. And NRA member Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, said it’s time to begin an honest discussion about gun control and said he wasn’t afraid of the political consequences.
The comments are significant. Grassley is senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which probably would take the first action on any gun control legislation. Reid sets the Senate schedule.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed.