Gun control gets unlikely backers in US Congress; Obama to make it second-term priority

Julie Pace, The Associated Press
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Prominent gun-rights advocates in Congress are now calling for a national discussion about restrictions to curb gun violence, signalling that the horrific shooting at a Connecticut elementary school could be a tipping point in a debate that has been dormant for years.

White House officials said President Barack Obama would make preventing gun violence a second-term policy priority. But it was unclear what Obama would pursue or how, and aides said stricter gun laws would be only part of any effort.

The president met Monday afternoon with Vice-President Joe Biden and a handful of Cabinet members to begin discussions on ways the country should respond to the Newtown shootings. Among those in attendance were Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

It remains to be seen whether Obama and Congress can turn their rhetoric into action or whether the shock over the Connecticut shootings will fade before they do. Public opinion has shifted against tougher gun control in recent years, and the gun lobby is a powerful political force, particularly in Republican primaries. Also, Obama has called for a national dialogue after other mass shootings during his presidency, only to see those efforts take a backseat to other pressing issues.

This time, the president has vowed to use "whatever power this office holds" to safeguard American children against gun violence, suggesting he may put political muscle behind an assault weapons ban. He has long supported reinstating the ban, which expired in 2004, but never pressed for in his first term. Liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill are already laying the groundwork for legislation to outlaw the military-style arms.

Twenty children and six adults were killed when a gunman carrying a high-powered military-style rifle and other guns stormed Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Friday morning.

"Everything should be on the table," West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin declared Monday. He is a conservative Democrat, avid hunter and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa proposed a study of both gun violence and mental health issues.

Virginia's Mark Warner, one of the few Senate Democrats who has found favour with gun rights groups, reversed course to back restrictions on assault weapons.

"The status quo is not acceptable anymore," he said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed Congress would soon "engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow." The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on gun violence early next year.

In July, after 12 people were murdered in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, Reid said the Senate's schedule was too packed to have a debate on gun control.

In 2010, top NRA official Wayne LaPierre called Reid "a true champion" of gun rights.

It's too early to say what could emerge next year in Congress, but the comments of Grassley, Reid and Manchin are significant. Grassley is senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which probably would have the first crack at any gun control legislation. Reid sets the Senate schedule. And Manchin said he's "not afraid of the political ramifications" from defying the NRA.

Other Republicans said mental health, not guns, was the problem, and generally stayed away from a debate on gun control.

Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, said: "We recognize those very demented, awkward people commit those crimes. We need to do a better job treating and looking at and finding people who have these problems. That's the issue. We have millions and millions of guns. Guns aren't the problem; sick people are."

The American public has been split over tougher gun laws, and there is no early indication that the Newtown shootings are changing many minds. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted over the weekend showed 54 per centfavour tougher laws, about the same as the 51 per cent in favour earlier in the year. Seven in 10 are opposed to banning the sale of handguns to anyone except law enforcement officers, the highest percentage since 1999.

Obama's spokesman reiterated his support for reinstating the assault weapons ban. Obama was outspoken in his calls for Washington to renew the ban during his 2008 White House run, but he made no effort to get it done during his first four years in office.

If Obama follows through on his pledge to make the stemming of gun violence a priority, he's likely to press for a broad approach. He's previously called for improving mental health services for young people and instituting more effective policing strategies, though his rhetoric has never turned into a policy push.

Obama has said he believes the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and has spoken of a national heritage that cherishes hunting, shooting and the tradition of gun ownership. The president has signed laws letting people carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak passenger trains.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said stricter gun control laws were part of the solution but not the only one. He said the president would engage in "the coming weeks" in a process that includes input from law enforcement, mental health experts and lawmakers.

"It's a complex problem that will require a complex solution," Carney said. "No single piece of legislation, no single action will fully address the problem."

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she will introduce legislation next year to ban the sale of new assault weapons, as well as big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.

Police say the Newtown gunman, Adam Lanza, was carrying an arsenal of ammunition and used a high-powered rifle similar to the military's M-16.

White House officials said the president feels some urgency to address gun violence in the wake of Friday's violence. But Obama is not expected to take any formal action before the end of the year given the all-consuming efforts to resolve tax and deficit-reduction talks and nominate new Cabinet secretaries.

Some gun control advocates urged Obama and lawmakers to act quickly, while the sorrow and shock of the Newtown shooting is still raw.

Flanked by dozens of shooting survivors and relatives of victims of gunfire around the country, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressed for tougher gun laws and tighter enforcement after the Connecticut school massacre.

"If this doesn't do it," Bloomberg asked, "what is going to?"

Such pleas have become near rituals for Bloomberg, a billionaire who has used both his mayoralty and his own money to push the gun-control cause only to see it slide from the national agenda again and again. But Bloomberg is pressing to make this moment a turning point.

Bloomberg and the mayors' group he leads, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, are calling for reinstituting a version of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, closing the so-called "gun show loophole" by requiring all gun sellers to conduct criminal background checks on prospective buyers, and stepping up federal prosecutions of people who lie on background checks, among other proposals.

Since the shootings, the powerful National Rifle Association lobby has been silent. Requests for comments have gone unanswered, and officials are turning down interview requests until they have more details. Their 1.7 million-strong Facebook group has disappeared, and the group's Twitter account — which is a favourite platform to communicate with supporters — has not sent a message since before the grim reality of Friday's shootings set in.

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Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Philip Elliott and AP Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York, and AP writer Helen O'Neill in Newtown, Connecticut, contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC