In a strong signal that the Obama administration is serious about instituting new gun control measures, Vice President Joe Biden said today that the president would be using executive action — in addition to pushing legislation in Congress —to make it harder for individuals to commit mass murders with firearms.
Sitting beside Attorney General Eric Holder before a cross-section of gun-control advocates, Biden affirmed that the administration and President Obama were serious about making substantive changes. The president is trying to ride the wave of public revulsion at the massacre in Newtown, Conn., where 20-year-old Adam Lanza used assault weapons to kill 20 young children and six educators, in addition to killing his mother and himself.
The push for significant gun control measures is something Washington has not attempted in nearly 20 years since President Bill Clinton was able to get an assault weapons ban through Congress. Biden was instrumental in getting the assault weapons ban through when he was a senator.
But the ban was allowed to expire in 2004 during the Bush administration, as Congressional members feared retaliation from the powerful National Rifle Association and the gun lobby.
“The president is going to act,” Biden said. “There are executive orders, there’s executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet. But we’re compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and the rest of the Cabinet members, as well as legislative action that we believe is required.”
The president announced last month that Biden would be charged with presenting actions that can be taken by the end of the month.
“A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons,” the president said in December when he announced the Biden panel. “A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loopholes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility of doing a background check at all.”
While Congress is deliberating on legislation, Biden suggested, the president might use executive action to make changes that do not require Congressional approval.
“We’re not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we’re going to do nothing,” Biden said. ” It’s critically important that we act.”
Today’s meeting included both advocates of gun control, such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns. There were also two survivors from the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, and the stepfather of one of the victims of last year’s shooting rampage at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
“I want to hear about your experiences,” Biden said to the group while the media was in the room. “I’m convinced that we can affect the well-being of millions of Americans and take thousands of people out of harm’s way if we act responsibly.”
After the meeting adjourned, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said it was “very productive and actually inspiring.” He said the administration’s intent is to figure out how to keep the country from losing more lives to gun violence, not to take guns away from lawful owners.
“Words like comprehensive and broad don’t mean taking guns away from law-abiding citizens,” Gross said as he stood on the White House driveway. “This is not a debate around the Second Amendment.”
He said the advocates also pushed Biden to seek executive actions that would not require Congressional approval, such as having the Justice Department prosecute people who lie on their background checks.
But lying in wait is the gun rights lobby and a Congress that now sounds reluctant to take on this issue.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said this week. “That’s going to dominate the Congress between now and the end of March. None of these issues will have the kind of priority as spending and debt over the next two or three months.”
On Thursday Biden is scheduled to sit down with the other side, gun owners and gun rights groups, such as the NRA, that oppose significant new gun restrictions. That meeting is less likely to include much inspiration and harmony.
In a sign of how potentially troublesome this issue is for gun retailers, Walmart, whose stores are the largest seller of guns in the country, at first told The Wall Street Journal that it would not be sending anyone to the meeting because none of its executives were available. But David Tovar, the vice president for Walmart corporate communications, changed his tune on Wednesday morning.
“We underestimated the expectation to attend the meeting on Thursday in person, so we are sending an appropriate representative to participate,” Tovar said in a statement. “We take this issue very seriously and are committed to staying engaged in this discussion as the administration and Congress work toward a consensus on the right path forward.”
Biden and Holder aren’t the only Cabinet members engaged on the gun issue. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will meet with parent and teacher groups, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will meet with mental health and disability advocates. In addition, there will be other meetings with community organizations, business owners and religious leaders.