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Obama gets ready for hard road ahead with gun-control initiative

Anticipating a tough slog for his new gun-control proposals in Congress, President Barack Obama is preparing to issue a series of executive orders to curb gun violence.

The executive actions would entail the stricter enforcement of existing gun laws, ordering better data collection on gun ownership and empowering the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on the impact of guns in American society.

The executive push is part of a gun-control initiative Mr. Obama is set to unveil on Wednesday, barely a month after the massacre of 20 Connecticut schoolchildren sparked a rare collective soul-searching about the nation's gun culture.

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The President's proposals also include several controversial measures that require congressional approval, such as banning the sale of assault weapons, making background checks mandatory for all gun buyers and prohibiting high-capacity bullet clips. But their passage remains uncertain, with even Democrats expressing reservations.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Mr. Obama's initiative, which the President will announce surrounded by children who wrote to him after the Newtown shooting, represents a "comprehensive approach" to preventing similar gun tragedies.

"It is a simple fact that there are limits on what can be done within existing law," Mr. Carney said. "Congress has to act."

If implemented, the proposals would end almost two decades of steadily weaker federal gun regulations. And their rapid formulation by a task force headed by Vice-President Joe Biden testifies to the widespread view that the White House has a narrow window while the Newtown massacre tops the national conversation.

Many of Mr. Obama's proposals are likely to face entrenched opposition from Republicans and split Democrats. Even some gun-control advocates argue that the White House should seek a modest package of gun reforms that would stand a better chance of getting through Congress without inflaming the powerful gun lobby.

Already, Texas Republican Congressman Steve Stockman is threatening to initiate impeachment proceedings against Mr. Obama if he issues executive orders on gun control, calling such actions "an existential threat to this nation."

While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an enhanced assault-weapons ban for his state, passage of a federal ban on such military-style semi-automatic rifles – including the type used in the Newtown shooting – is seen as a long shot at best.

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"Asking for an assault-weapons ban would be an absolute mistake because the administration knows they would never get it," said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington-based think tank.

As a result, it remains to be seen how hard Mr. Obama will push for an assault-weapons ban, rather than emphasize measures that garner much broader public support. They include banning the sale of magazines holding more than 10 bullets and expanding the federal system of background checks to cover weapons sold privately and at gun shows.

Debate over an assault-weapons ban, which is feverishly opposed by the National Rifle Association, would draw attention away from potentially more effective gun-control measures that the NRA might not actively oppose, Mr. Hudak added.

"On an issue that is as emotional and tricky as gun control, you have to be driven by the politics," Mr. Hudak said in response to Mr. Obama's recent contention that his "starting point is not to worry about the politics."

Since the Newtown tragedy, Mr. Obama has reiterated his long-standing support for what he called a "meaningful" federal ban on the sale of assault weapons, a reference to the fact that gun manufacturers easily circumvented a ban that existed for 10 years until 2004 by adding or subtracting gun features.

If he fails to get a comprehensive ban through Congress, Mr. Obama could use his executive authority to ban the importation of assault weapons, including AK-47s. But any new ban would not affect the estimated three million assault weapons already in circulation.

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Mr. Obama's decision to take up gun control – an issue only Democrats in safe urban seats have dared broach in recent years – comes amid anecdotal evidence of surging gun sales and long lines at gun shows, where no background check is required to purchase a weapon.

On Monday, Mr. Obama addressed the issue, saying: "Those who oppose any common-sense gun control or gun-safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government is about to take all your guns away … It obviously is good for business."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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