By Testing the Gun Lobby, Obama and Biden are Launching a Broader War on the Other Party

It's been Washington's worst kept secret: Just what new gun regulations will Barack Obama and Joe Biden recommend in the wake of the Sandy Hill Elementary mass shooting?

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image: Time Magazine Cover, Jan. 28, 2012
Photographs by Nigel Parry—CPi for TIME. Michael Bloomberg: Jan. 11 in New York City; Gabrielle Giffords: Jan. 13 in her home in Tucson, Ariz.; Joe Biden: Jan. 15 in the White House.

It’s been Washington’s worst kept secret: Just what new gun regulations will Barack Obama and Joe Biden recommend in the wake of the Sandy Hill Elementary mass shooting?

From the beginning, the White House telegraphed its plans in public statements and private conversations with stakeholders. Obama even listed the biggest measures recently, claiming there was a “growing consensus” around a new assault weapons ban, expanding background checks and banning the sale of high-magazine clips. In the weeks that followed, Biden dropped even more hints, talking about freeing up federal agencies to conduct more gun research, while aides made clear that a new federal gun trafficking statute was in the cards.

(Archive Gallery: TIME’s Gun Covers, 1968-2013)

The Biden process, with dozens of meeting over several weeks, has been enormously productive, just not in the way that it has been described in most news reports. That’s because it has been largely focused on building a broad coalition of advocates from diverse segments of American society to press for the measures once they are announced. Biden met with cops, gun control groups, victims groups, clergy, mayors, educators, and other law enforcement and medical professionals. Anything that passes Congress in the coming months or years restricting gun access will depend heavily on the public pressure that these groups can bring to bear.

For the National Rifle Association, which opposes most if not all of the Biden proposals, this new coalition, and the outside money pouring in to fund it, is a primary concern. The group can be confident that in the short-term the most controversial proposals have little chance of passing Congress, where House Republicans cannot even agree on their own leader’s legislation, much less bills coming from the White House. But if the public pressure continues, there is a real threat of that bulwark breaking down. “They for the first time have money and coordination that they did not have before,” NRA President David Keene tells TIME in this week’s cover story, which will be published to Swampland Wednesday afternoon, and arrive on newsstands Friday. “They see this as their best shot, and it is a shot that they are taking, and they are coming right at us.”

That story will focus on the contours of the coalition that is being built to reset the gun debate. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has long advocated of new gun restrictions, has promised substantial resources to stand behind members of Congress who take difficult votes. “The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful,” he tells TIME for the story. Former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have also launched an effort to raise money to defend members of Congress who may earn the ire of gun-owner groups like the NRA. ““If a representative wants to vote their conscience, we are not going to allow you to bully,” says Steve Mostyn, a Houston trial lawyer who has already given $1 million to the effort with his wife. “We will counter.”

(2012 Cover Story: ‘How Guns Won’, by Joe Klein)

For the White House, the announcement of President Obama’s gun control priorities marks the beginning of a much bigger effort that many inside the White House hope can be a model for putting outside pressure on Congress to enact the President’s legislative priorities. “It falls into the larger context of the Republicans fighting rear guard battles on immigration, and the role of government and on this,” said one administration official about the coming gunfight. “That’s going to be hard to sustain over time.”

That strategic insight is the most revealing, and potentially most consequential part, of the Biden recommendations that will be announced Wednesday by the President Obama.

The full cover story will be posted to later Wednesday, available for download to tablets on Thursday evening and on newsstands Friday.