Four days before taking the oath of office, President Barack Obama on Wednesday staked the beginning of his second term on an uphill quest to pass the broadest gun control legislation in a generation.
In the aftermath of the Connecticut school massacre, Obama vowed to rally public opinion to press a reluctant Congress to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, expand background checks and toughen gun-trafficking laws.
Recognizing that the legislative fight could be long and difficult, the president also took immediate steps by issuing a series of executive orders intended to reduce gun violence.
Surrounded by children who wrote him letters seeking curbs on guns, Obama committed himself to a high-profile and politically volatile campaign behind proposals assembled by Vice President Joe Biden that will test the administration’s strength heading into the next four years. The first big push of Obama’s second term, then, will come on an issue that was not even on his to-do list on Election Day.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this,” Obama said, “and so will Joe.”
The White House is planning a multifaceted effort to sell its plans, including speeches by the president and vice president and concerted lobbying by interest groups to influence several dozen lawmakers from both parties seen as critical to passage.
The National Rife Association made clear that it was ready for a fight. Even before the president’s speech, it broadcast a video calling Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for opposing more armed guards in schools while his daughters had Secret Service protection. After the speech, the group said it would work to secure schools, fix the mental health system and prosecute criminals, but criticized the president’s other proposals.
Obama’s plan included four major legislative proposals and 23 executive actions that he initiated on his own authority to bolster enforcement of existing laws, improve the nation’s database of background checks and otherwise make it harder for criminals and people with mental illness to get guns.
Obama asked Congress to reinstate and strengthen a ban on the sale and production of assault weapons that passed in 1994 and expired in 2004. He also called for a ban on the sale and production of magazines with more than 10 rounds, like those used in Newtown and other mass shootings.
Obama’s plan would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing the longstanding loophole that allows buyers to avoid screening by purchasing weapons from unlicensed sellers at gunshows or in private sales. Nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from the system.
He also proposed legislation banning the possession or transfer of armor-piercing bullets and cracking down on “straw purchasers,” those who pass background checks and then forward guns to criminals or others forbidden from purchasing them.
For Obama, the plan represented a political pivot. While he has always expressed support for an assault weapons ban, he has made no real effort to pass it on the assumption that the votes were not there. But he and the White House are banking on the idea that the Newtown shooting has changed the dynamics.
“I have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook,” Biden said Wednesday. “The world has changed and is demanding action.”
The future of the plan may depend on how much political energy Obama puts behind it, not just to pressure Republicans but to win over Democrats who support gun rights. Even the White House considers passage of a new assault weapons ban exceedingly difficult, but there did seem to be some consensus building for expanding background checks.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, a gun control supporter, made no mention of the assault weapons ban but pointed to the background checks.
“If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime,” he said, “universal background checks is at the sweet spot.”
On the other side, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed an assault weapons ban as ineffective.
“But in terms of background checks, in terms of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and people who have serious mental health difficulties, we want to do that, and we would take a close look at that,” he told C-Span.