Obama Takes a First Step on Gun Control After Sandy Hook

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement on Dec. 19, 2012, in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, about policies he will pursue following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the White House would submit new gun-control proposals to Congress next month and pledged to “use all the powers of this office” to identify and promote new polices to address the scourge of gun violence.

Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to head up a task force of Cabinet members, members of Congress and outside organizations, which will comb through existing gun-control proposals, devise new ones and submit a “very specific” set of proposals to Congress in January.

Obama did not offer details about what the proposals would contain, but he noted that he had chosen Biden — who was the White House’s point person on the stimulus package and has served as a liaison to Congress on tricky topics — partly because he had a hand in crafting the 1994 crime bill that outlawed assault weapons. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has vowed to reintroduce a bill to ban assault weapons, which President George W. Bush let lapse, when Congress returns in January.

It was the third time Obama has spoken publicly about gun violence since 26 victims were massacred inside a Connecticut elementary school last week, and the first time he has outlined concrete steps to address the issue. A handful of NRA-backed Democrats have issued statements telegraphing openness to new restrictions on gun rights. But despite Obama’s pledges to tackle the problem — and a broad public outcry that has stirred optimism that the mass shooting might breathe life into dormant gun-control legislation — there are formidable forces arrayed against him.

Republicans still hold a majority in the House for the next two years, and there are enough gun-rights votes to stall a bill in the Senate. To move a bill, Obama will require the support of lawmakers from both parties who have felt beholden to the gun lobby or at least lacked the will to challenge it. The White House will also have to grapple with powerful gun-rights groups directly. In keeping with its traditional response to mass shootings, the NRA has said little since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, except to issue a statement pledging “to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

Seeking to sidestep a backlash from the NRA, Obama reaffirmed his belief in the Second Amendment and said he would seek common ground with the “vast majority” of responsible gun owners. “There is a big chunk of space between what the Second Amendment means and having no rules at all,” he said. Asked about the clout of the gun lobby, which has often cowed lawmakers into backing down on the divisive topic, Obama said, “The NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers, and I would expect that they’ve been impacted by this is as well.”

Obama promised that the task force was not merely a symbolic gesture. Washington has a not-so-storied tradition of promising change, assembling a blue-ribbon panel to untangle a knotty problem and then quietly bowing to the forces of inertia once the public’s attention locks onto another topic. “This is not some Washington commission,” Obama said, effectively acknowledging that it sounds like one. “This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside … This is a team that has a very specific task: to pull together real reforms, right now.”

The President eschewed gun-control during his first term, and while he has said he supports a ban on assault weapons (“weapons of war,” he called them on Wednesday) and pointed to better mental-health-care practices as part of the solution, it is an open question what new kinds of proposals he would support. When a reporter buttonholed him about his inaction on gun control during his presidency, Obama rattled off the litany of challenges that have preoccupied him. “I haven’t exactly been on vacation,” he said.

Obama said he would use his State of the Union address next month to keep the country’s focus on the topic, in an effort to keep the spotlight on as Congress takes up the tricky issue. “It won’t be easy,” he admitted. “But that can’t be an excuse not to try.”