Setting the stage for what could be the most sweeping political battle over gun control in decades, President Obama today laid out a comprehensive package for reducing gun violence in America, a multi-part plan he says will not only "help prevent mass shootings" but also "reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country."
Speaking to an audience that included family members of those killed a month ago in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as children who wrote to Mr. Obama in the wake of recent episodes of mass violence, the president acknowledged the difficulties of pursuing stricter legislation on gun laws, but argued that he would use "whatever weight this office holds" to achieve his goals.
"Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try," he said. "This is our first task as a society: Keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change."
The president, who was accompanied by Vice President Biden onstage, outlined a series of steps both political and administrative he says would limit access to guns and certain types of ammunition, make mental health care more attainable, and increase federal funds for both research and law enforcement. Invoking the words of children who wrote to him in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook murders, he urged Americans to demand change from Congress -- and "get them on the record" about their positions on his various proposals.
"This will not happen unless the American people demand it," he said.
Among the initiatives outlined in Mr. Obama's plan include universal background checks for gun sales, the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, capping ammunition magazines to a 10-round limit, banning armor-piercing ammunition, providing schools with resource officers and school counselors, putting more police officers on the streets, creating serious punishments for gun trafficking, and ensuring that health insurance plans cover mental health benefits.
The president also outlined a series of 23 executive actions he can take without congressional approval, including measures aimed at making federal background check data widely available, accessible, and maximally effective; staying ahead of the curve on the newest gun safety measures; tracing seized guns and ensuring they don't go back into the hands of dangerous gun owners; making sure schools and other institutions are equipped and prepared for the possibility of shooter situations; aggressively prosecuting gun crime; and improving mental health resources and discourse.
Any effort on behalf of the White House to push new gun laws through Congress is sure to face immense opposition from the gun lobby, which has for years wielded its formidable financial and organizing power to prevent the passage of federal laws that would tighten restrictions on gun ownership. And groups like the National Rifle Association are clearly gearing up to fight the president's recommendations: Early this morning, before Mr. Obama had even unveiled his proposals, the group released an ad calling the president an "elitist hypocrite" because his daughters have Secret Service protection.
The majority of House Republicans, who will set the legislative agenda, have also shown little appetite for most of the new gun laws on the table.
"The assault weapons ban, the magazine limitations, does not solve the problem of gun crime," said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a former sheriff, in an interview today with CBS News. "I think you really have to address the mental health issues and that's the first and foremost issue. And then secondly, the laws that we have in this land already need to be enforced."
Despite the obvious hurdles, some gun control advocates believe that a recent groundswell of support for stricter gun laws could exert enough pressure on moderate Republicans to force a vote in the House.
The White House has also pointed to the push for universal background checks as its central priority in this fight. Part of the reason for that, according to the administration, is what Biden called a "surprising" and near-universal emphasis on the subject in his meetings with stakeholders over the past few weeks. But many also believe the background checks could be a more palatable option for some on the right.
Reichert, though he dismissed the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban and caps on high-capacity magazines, called the idea of universal background checks "a part of the total package that should be examined that could make a difference."
"Local laws, gun crime laws, state laws and federal laws, we need to have more emphasis on enforcing those laws, holding people accountable who have committed crimes or about to commit crimes," he told CBS. "We need to gather that information and hold those people accountable that commit gun crimes."