Vowing to “put everything into this”, President Barack Obama today unveiled the most sweeping proposals in two decades to tighten gun control in the US, including universal background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun, and a renewed ban on assault weapons, coupled with a 10-round limit for magazines.
At the same time – 33 days after the school shooting rampage in Connecticut that horrified the country – he also signed 23 presidential executive orders that will speed up access to data on gun-purchasers, provide more money for the mental health system, and funnel extra resources to police.
“These are concrete steps we can take right now, a specific set of proposals,” Mr Obama said, flanked by children who had written to him since the Newtown massacre, in which 20 children under the age of eight and six teachers were killed. But despite the widening clamour for action, and tough new measures at state level, a ferocious – and for the White House perhaps unwinnable – battle lies ahead in Congress, which must pass the legislation on background checks and assault weapons.
Even before Mr Obama spoke, the National Rifle Association declared: “These gun control schemes have failed in the past and will have no impact on public safety and crime.” More provocatively still, it put out a cable TV and internet advert, referring directly to Mr Obama’s two school-aged daughters.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” a narrator says. “Then why is he sceptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools?” The advert described the President (whose children attend private school in Washington DC and receive Secret Service protection) as “just another elitist hypocrite.” An Obama spokesman called the advert “repugnant and cowardly”.
Within minutes of Mr Obama’s speech, some Republican-run states were announcing they were looking into ways of blocking some of the decisions announced by executive order. But the biggest problem on Capitol Hill may not be Republicans, whose hostility these days is taken for granted by the White House – but members of the President’s own party, especially Democrats from conservative states with a strong gun tradition.
Nevada’s Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and the most powerful Democrat in Congress, has made clear that an assault weapons ban has virtually no chance of passage. Immigration reform, not gun control, is his top priority in the new legislative session that has just started, he has said.
In response, Mr Obama is gambling that he can shame Congress into action, by carrying the battle to the country at large, where public opinion has shifted notably in favour of tighter controls in the wake of the Connecticut shootings and a spate of other such deadly incidents in recent months.
Boosting him have been national polls showing clear support, including one by CNN today showing Americans in favour of tougher gun controls by a 55-45 majority, and the New York measures signed into law this week by the state’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, which go even further than those called for by Mr Obama.
The President repeatedly used the words “common sense” to describe his proposals. America was the land of the free and would remain so, he declared, adding: “I respect the Second Amendment and the rights of gun-owners.”
Most gun-owners, he said, accepted that respect for that constitutional right did not rule out steps to prevent guns “doing harm on a massive scale”. He acknowledged that some gun advocates would brand his scheme as the precursor of a government attempt to outlaw guns completely – a fear borne out by a surge in NRA membership since Newtown, and a run at gun shops on assault weapons.
Such arms, used by the Connecticut gunman Adam Lanza and in the July 2012 cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 people died and 58 others were wounded, were outlawed by Congress in 1994, when Bill Clinton was in the White House. But the George W Bush administration made no attempt to extend the ban when it expired in 2004.
Above all, Mr Obama stressed, speed was of the essence – when the country was still in shock and outrage at the Newtown incident, and while his own power was at its zenith, reinforced by election victory in November, but before a second term President’s inevitable slide into “lame duck” status. “I will put everything into this, I will use every power of this office,” he said. “If there is even one thing we can do, even one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try it.” ”
When presidents use their power
According to the Congressional glossary C-Span, an executive order is “a presidential directive with the force of law” that does not need congressional approval because it is made in the President’s capacity as commander-in-chief.
Throughout America’s history, presidents have used executive orders to drive policy. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, and President Truman mandated equal treatment of members of the armed forces through executive orders.
Critics are likely to play on gun-owners’ fear that even tougher gun control measures are waiting in the wings, and argue that President Obama’s use of executive orders shows he is attempting to run the republic as a dictatorship. But supporters will say it is the only way to get measures through the political barbed wire that is the gun-control debate.