President Barack Obama unveiled the most ambitious gun-control agenda in decades today, announcing a $500 million package of legislative proposals and executive actions aimed at curbing firearms violence, from mass shootings to street crime.
The president, counting on a shift in public opinion since the shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school last month, challenged Congress to mandate background checks for all gun buyers, ban high-capacity ammunition clips, and reinstate a ban on sales of assault weapons.
Obama signed 23 executive actions aimed at circumventing congressional opposition to new gun restrictions, including several designed to maximize prosecution of gun crimes and improve access to government data for background checks.
“If there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try,” Obama said, surrounded by lawmakers, gun-control advocates and children who wrote to the president after the Dec. 14 shooting that killed 20 students and six staff members in Newtown, Connecticut.
By introducing the measures days before his inauguration, Obama is placing the gun debate at the top of his second-term agenda. He and his congressional allies face strong opposition, particularly in the Republican-run House, to his legislative proposals. The National Rifle Association, the biggest lobby for gun owners and makers, has vowed to fight any new limits.
The NRA, which warned members on its website today that the ultimate goal of gun-control advocates was “an outright ban on your guns,” released a statement saying the group would work with Congress to find “real solutions” to protecting children.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the organization said in the statement.
Along with reinstating the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004 and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, Obama wants Congress to prohibit the possession of armor-piercing ammunition and increase criminal penalties for gun trafficking.
The administration also plans to address legal barriers that may prevent states from sharing relevant medical information, to review standards for gun locks, require federal authorities to trace firearms recovered in criminal investigations and direct the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes of gun violence.
The new spending would go mostly for training and data-collection programs. Obama wants $10 million for the CDC to conduct further research, “including investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence.”
Another $20 million would expand a reporting system to gather data when firearms are used in violent deaths, whether homicides or suicides. To encourage states to share criminal and mental health records for the federal background database, Obama proposes spending $20 million this year and $50 million next year.
School districts and police departments would get $150 million to hire school resource officers, psychologists and social workers and another $65 million for teacher training.
Obama again urged lawmakers to approve an existing request for $4 billion to help communities keep 15,000 police officers on duty.
As part of his announcements, Obama nominated Todd Jones as the director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Jones is currently acting director of the agency.
White House officials emphasized that no single law or action will stop gun violence across the country. Without legislative action, the president acknowledged the steps he can take will have limited impact.
“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act,” Obama said. “And Congress must act soon.”
It has been almost two decades since Congress passed a major rewrite of U.S. gun laws, with the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired 10 years later. The NRA has been successful at influencing lawmakers through campaign contributions and its grassroots network of 4 million members.
“We’ll probably have some close votes but, certainly at this point, the odds would be against passage,” said Representative John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican.
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, accused Obama of “using executive action to attempt to poke holes in the Second Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution. He called it “a power grab along the same pattern we’ve seen of contempt for the elected representatives of the American people.”
Some of Obama’s directives “clearly run afoul” of spending restrictions imposed by Congress designed to limit research on gun-related violence, Grassley said.
Congress also has limited gathering and disclosure of data on gun owners and firearms.
The reaction from House Speaker John Boehner’s office was noncommittal.
“House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican. “And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”
Obama plans to rally popular support, enlisting the help of law-enforcement officials, religious leaders and gun violence victims to soften opposition. Over the past several weeks, administration officials have held 22 meetings with 220 organizations to develop their plans.
A majority of Americans favor new gun-control measures, with support for banning high-capacity magazines at 65 percent and a prohibition on the sale of military-style weapons at 58 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Jan. 14.
The shooter in Newtown, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and had ammunition magazines that held 30 rounds. Democrats say that tragedy has shaken the political ground in Congress and created an opening for action.
“The challenge is to sustain that,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has spent much of his time on the issue since the Dec. 14 shootings.
Blumenthal and other Democrats have identified expanded background checks and limits on high-capacity assault magazines as areas that could attract bipartisan support. Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation as early as next week.
Renewing the assault-weapons ban will be the toughest provision and may not be achievable, said Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose husband was murdered in a 1993 mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road.
“You have to take a look at your options,” said McCarthy. “If we can’t lift it to get it done, then hopefully we’ll go for the large magazines.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who Obama asked to come up with recommendations after the Newtown shooting, today addressed the families of victims of the mass killing. The administration will “do everything in our power to honor the memory of your children,” Biden said.
“I have no illusions to what we’re up against,” he said. “We should do as much as we can as quickly as we can.”
Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association of Rindge, New Hampshire, was among the representatives of gun owners, including the NRA, who met with Biden on Jan. 10.
“I’m a lot more pleased than I would have been led to believe when I walked out of the White House,” he said about the executive actions outlined by Obama.
In a telephone interview from Las Vegas, where he was attending a gun show, Feldman his organization will “definitely support” background checks at gun shows and will oppose a ban high-capacity ammunition clips and reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban.
In a sign of the intensity of the battle ahead, the NRA yesterday released an ad labeling Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because his own children receive armed protection.
Without identifying Obama’s two young daughters by name or the Washington school they attend, the narrator of an NRA video on its website asks: “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools?”
Obama’s spokesman said the president’s children, who receive U.S. Secret Service protection, shouldn’t be “pawns in a political fight.”
“To go so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.