Five days after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, President Barack Obama on Wednesday tasked Vice President Joe Biden with assembling a package of recommendations for battling gun violence, which Obama called "epidemic" in the U.S. The president said he wanted to review the recommendations no later than January.
Obama also defended himself from charges that he has been absent on the gun issue, saying "I don't think I've been on vacation."
Obama spoke in the White House briefing room named after James Brady, the press secretary severely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The incident led Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, to become leading gun control advocates.
"I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this," he said. "We won’t prevent them all, but that can’t be an excuse not to try. It won’t be easy, but that can’t be an excuse not to try."
The president and his top aides have cautioned that just changing America’s gun laws—a heavy lift in the face of near-certain opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association—won’t fully solve the problem. But advocates of tougher restrictions see the Newtown, Conn., tragedy as “a tipping point.”
The president also called for making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to guns, pressed for steps like banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and enforcing background checks. But he also urged soul-searching about a popular culture he said "glorifies guns and violence," and stressed that any solution "must begin inside the home, and inside our hearts."
"There’s no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence in our society," Obama said. But "if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try."
Obama has long said he supports renewing a federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. But has made no serious legislative push to do so.
The announcement came after Obama vowed at an emotional vigil in Newtown on Sunday to wield “whatever power this office holds” to tamp down on shooting-related deaths.
The NRA plans a press conference on Friday to detail its own proposals. The group, which has long resisted any legislative efforts to restrict gun rights, has vowed to "offer meaningful contributions" to prevent such tragedies in the future.
"Hopefully they’ll do some self-reflection," Obama said of the NRA. Pressed to do some self-relfection of his own given his decision not to tackle gun violence aggressively before Newtown, the president said he had had other obligations, like reviving the economy after the 2007-2008 meltdown, rescuing the auto industry, and prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"All of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington," he said, calling the Newtown shootings a wake-up call.
Gun control advocates hope a tidal wave of emotion after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School will change the national debate.
Obama took pains to emphasize that he was not merely falling back on the time-honored Washington tactic of naming a commission of (supposedly) wise inside-the-Beltway experts who will craft a report "that gets read and pushed aside."
Instead, Obama said Biden will bring together lawmakers, members of Obama's Cabinet and other stakeholders to consider some long-standing proposals and "even look at some bad ideas before disposing of them."
He said the group would then craft "concrete recommendations" that Congress could act on swiftly.
Obama stressed he believes the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.
"This county has a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s been handed down from generation to generation," he said. "The vast majority of gun owners in America are responsible—they buy their guns legally, and they use them safely.”
But, he added, "I am also betting that the majority—the vast majority—of responsible law-abiding gun owners would be some of the first to say we should be able to keep an irresponsible law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war," he stressed.
The president noted that the Senate has not confirmed a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in six years and urged senators to start there.