14 Jan 2013

Obama promises action on gun violence

“Congress needs to examine its conscience”, President Obama has declared – promising a range of measures to control gun violence, including a “meaningful” assault weapons ban.

It is the major domestic policy challenge of Obama’s second term and at the final press conference of his first term, the president was insistent that he would take decisive action to curb gun violence.

Mr Obama said he had now seen the recommendations put forward by Vice-President Biden, who has been leading a task force designed to come up with a range of policy proposals, in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings.

The full details will be revealed later this week, but Mr Obama said although some steps would require legislative action, he could achieve others through making executive orders. “If I have the opportunity to reduce the possibility of gun violence, I want to take it”, he said.

The president will face the determined opposition of the gun lobby, along with their supporters in Congress, but he insisted earlier that his starting point was not to worry about politics, but to come up with sensible measures which would actually work.

If there is a step we can take that will save even one child from what happened in Newtown, we should take that step. President Obama

He urged members of congress to “examine their conscience” and not to block his proposals, and suggested that the gun industry had an interest in provoking fear among responsible gun owners that the federal government wanted to take their weapons away.

“There is an economic element to that. It’s good for business”, he said, assuring people who owned guns for legitimate purposes that they had nothing to worry about.

Mr Obama hinted at stronger background checks, restrictions on high-capacity ammunition clips and an effective ban on assault weapons, perhaps the most contentious of the proposals on the table.

But whatever proposals Joe Biden has recommended, they will face a tough ride through a congress already at war over the next looming debt crisis. The gun lobby is not for surrendering: the National Rifle Association is planning a new advertising campaign as part of its fight-back.

NRA stands firm

On Sunday the NRA president David Keene insisted that the measures would never make it through congress, and complained that the Biden task force had not wanted to listen to their side of the argument, but had already decided what action it wanted to recommend.

There have already been moves in some states to crack down on gun ownership. The AP reports that New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo has hammered out a deal to bring in the country’s first gun control law since Connecticut.

According to the AP, the measures limits on the size of ammunition magazines, restricting the state’s existing assault weapons ban still further. It is understood that Republicans have also asked for stronger provisions covering people suffering with mental health problems.

And Maryland governor Martin O Malley has launched a new push for even stricter laws, including restrictions to visitor access to schools. He is calling for would-be gun owners to allow police to take their fingerprints, undertake a compulsory gun safety course and a comprehensive background check.

One pro-gun group has organised a Gun Appreciation Day on 19 January, calling on their supporters: “Go to your local gun store, gun range or gun show with your Constitution, American flags and your ‘Hands off my Guns’ sign to send a loud and clear message.”

Yearning for action

But a month after the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, there is a national yearning for some kind of action, to prevent future tragedies from happening again.

Parents of the children who died gathered in the town on Monday, to hold a moment of silence: but they declared that although their hearts were broken, their spirits were not.

They have set up a new organisation called Sandy Hook promise, urging people across the country to support what they called “common sense solutions” to gun violence, which would help make communities like theirs so much safer.

Co founder Tom Bittman said: “I do not want there to be a next time… the bottom line is, we must act. We can’t let this happen again.”

For President Obama, the issue will dominate his entire agenda in the months to come. He has declared he has the stomach for the political fight: now, he is being urged not to shrink from it, but to turn his policy promises into action.

As John Dickerson notes in Slate magazine, a president who has not addressed the issue of gun control until now, has set himself the highest of bars.

“Will all of them get through this congress? I don’t know, ” Obama said, but insisted: “If there is a step we can take that will save even one child from what happened in Newtown, we should take that step.”

Winning the gun law battle, even in the wake of one of the nation’s worst tragedies? That’s got to be a tough act, even given the window for bold action at the start of his second term.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News