The White House signalled its support for a renewed federal ban on assault weapons Tuesday, as the National Rifle Association and top Senate Republican expressed openness towards measures aimed at preventing a repetition of the Newtown massacre.
Comments by the NRA and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, though non-committal, testified to the shifting landscape in Washington, where advocates of stricter gun control appear to be gaining traction for the first time in almost two decades.
Some gun control advocates are pushing for the immediate introduction of gun control legislation, before Congress recesses this month. They believe the almost 80 members of Congress who are not returning in January – either because they are retiring or lost their seats in November – would feel freer to support gun restrictions now.
Still, they say, it will take relentless pressure on the White House and legislators to act before the NRA intervenes to thwart their momentum.
“We are trying to make sure, frankly, that no one in Congress can avoid this issue,” said Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
Past efforts to strengthen gun control laws at the state and federal levels have typically only been successful in the direct aftermath of tragic events that monopolize public attention and force the powerful gun lobby to lay low for a period.
Mr. Obama has intermittently expressed support for an assault weapons ban and expanded background checks in the past, including after the early 2011 shooting of then congressman Gabrielle Giffords that took the lives of six people, including a nine-year-old girl. But he never made the adoption of such measures a priority.
However, the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown has galvanized Washington as no similar tragedy has done before.
“As we continue to learn the facts [about the shooting], Congress will examine whether there is an appropriate and constitutional response that would better protect our citizens,” Mr. McConnell said.
And the NRA, which had been silent since the school massacre, issued a statement Tuesday saying it “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” The group also said that the four million “moms, dads, sons and daughters” who belong to the group were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by the tragedy. It plans to hold a “major” press conference on Friday.
The White House said President Barack Obama is “actively supportive” of reinstating an assault weapons ban, expanding federal background checks on gun buyers and prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines used in recent mass shootings.
Mr. Obama’s “view is that we need to address this in a way that acknowledges that no single piece of legislation, no single restriction on access to a certain type of weapon will solve this problem, and that we need to address it more broadly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday.
He added the President would also support a law that closes the so-called gun-show loophole, which enables buyers to avoid a federal background check before acquiring a weapon.
Mr. Carney said a team of Obama cabinet members led by Attorney General Eric Holder, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with the President on Monday to “begin looking at ways that the country can move forward and respond to the tragedy in Newtown … Their participation underscores the comprehensive way in which the President views this problem.”
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has promised to introduce legislation in January that would reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. The Feinstein bill would also prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines that allow gun owners to fire 30 or more bullets without reloading.
Mr. Obama is “actively supportive” of Ms. Feinstein’s initiative, Mr. Carney said. He added the President would also support a law that closes the so-called gun-show loophole, which enables buyers to avoid a federal background check before acquiring a weapon.
Earlier this year, Mr. Holder and the White House examined ways to expand the types of information included background check data base administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But they dropped the initiative as the election approached.
The background check data base “is missing vast amounts of information. And sometimes it is missing information for no go reason,” Ms. Hilly said.
She added that, while most new measures will require congressional action, Mr. Obama could act immediately on his own to ban the importation of weapons, including the Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles and pistols that “are very popular” with drug dealers.
One measure that some gun advocates would support involves making it harder for people suffering from mental illness to acquire guns. Under the current system, only people who have been deemed mentally incompetent by a court or involuntarily committed are prohibited from buying a gun. Under that definition, James Holmes, who shot 70 people in a Colorado theatre this year, was able to buy his guns legally.
The longer Mr. Obama and Congress wait to take up the gun control issue, however, the greater the likelihood the gun lobby will mobilize to prevent new legislation.
“Make no mistake, with Obama’s re-election, we face a perilous four years,” the NRA’s lobby arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, said last month in its 2012 Election Recap. “There will be battles ahead, and NRA members and their fellow gun owners must remain vigilant.”
The probability that the gun lobby will seek to intimidate legislators is one reason Joseph Califano, a former top aide to president Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, called on Mr. Obama to table a new gun control law in Congress within the next two weeks “or lose the opportunity during your presidency.”
In a Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Califano noted that Mr. Johnson moved immediately after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to table a bill that banned mail-order gun sales and the importation of cheap handguns known as “$10 specials.”
With dozens of senators and congressmen leaving for good this month, Mr. Califano said Mr. Obama can take “advantage of the fact that many members can vote their conscience without fear of retribution by the gun lobby.”
OPTIONS FOR CONGRESS
Assault weapons ban
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to introduce legislation to reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons that expired in 2004, a proposal President Barack Obama supports. It would cover the sale of most semi-automatic weapons that enable users to shoot multiple bullets without reloading, like the .223 Bushmaster used in Friday’s shooting. In the past, gun manufacturers made slight modifications to weapons to circumvent the ban, a problem any new law would need to address.
That bill would also ban the sale of high-capacity gun clips that store more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Currently, gun users can purchase clips with up to 100 rounds, allowing them to fire dozens of bullets without changing clips.
Gun purchasers who buy their weapons at federally licensed dealers must undergo a federal background checkthat screens them for a criminal record, restraining orders, mental illness, drug abuse and other disqualifying factors. But people buying weapons at gun shows or through private sales – accounting for about 40 per cent of gun purchases – are not subject to it. Legislation would be required to make all gun buyers undergo a background check.
Beefing up the background check
Gun control advocates have called for more federal funding for state and local police to help them submit information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database on a timely basis. Also, there is little information sharing between federal agencies. One proposal is to enable the Social Security Administration to supply information to the FBI databaseon beneficiaries deemed mentally incompetent to handle their own finances.
Criminals who cannot pass a background check rely on a ready supply of straw purchasers to acquire guns for them. Some gun control advocates argue that stiffer penalties, including mandatory prison sentences, are required for straw purchasers to discourage such activity.