On the afternoon that he decided to launch perhaps the most controversial effort of his second term – gun control by executive order – President Obama took one look at remarks written for him to address a mass shooting in Oregon and warned his team he would go off-script.
“I’m just going to riff off it. I'm pissed,” one aide recalled Obama saying before he strode off to talk to reporters.
There was no explicit announcement of a new policy that day in October. But as Obama publicly grieved that “somehow this has become routine,” some senior advisors recognized the moment they felt he had silently contemplated for two years.
“Clear schedule,” another advisor tapped out to his assistant via Blackberry – Obama was about to order them to take a new look at gun measures.
Curbing gun violence is an elusive goal in Obama’s domestic agenda, and as he works to cement his historical legacy, he appears ready to reach for a familiar tool: executive power. After years of fruitless battles with Congress, Obama has repeatedly taken sweeping action himself, most notably on immigration and climate change, and a gun fiat of far-reaching consequence would fit that pattern.
The question is front and center at the White House as Obama travels to San Bernardino on Friday to meet with the families of victims of the mass shooting Dec. 2, in which a self-radicalized couple shot and killed 14 people in the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11.
Advisors are considering a range of steps Obama could take to reinterpret existing law, from small tweaks in how federal agencies conduct gun-related investigations and regulate background checks to a major change like closing the so-called gun show loophole. They are meeting with local and state officials to learn how they addressed gun violence. And they are bringing in advocates for the president to hear out.
It’s not clear yet what case his team will offer him, but every sign points to a bold interpretation of Obama’s executive authority. It would be the culmination of a shift in his thinking that began two years ago when the Senate decisively rejected firearms safety measures inspired by a spate of mass killings.
“His commitment to using his authority had been there since that day in 2013,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in an interview. “That’s when the president concluded that, unless there was a dramatic change in the political atmosphere, the only option was the administrative one.”
The issue took on new urgency on the afternoon of Oct. 1, when White House staffers gathered around television screens outside the Oval Office and watched the news emerge about an Oregon community college student who shot and killed nine people on campus, then shot himself to death.
Since then, the White House has been studying executive actions taken by state and local officials around the country, according to people familiar with the research team’s work.
Some states have expedited the addition of criminal information to their databases for background checks, for instance. In other cases, executives set new priorities for law enforcement agencies, whether it be to trace all guns used to commit crimes or to investigate all instances where someone barred from buying a gun still manages to obtain a firearm.
Vice President Joseph Biden has been talking to governors and mayors about the successful efforts, a signal that Obama may be planning to mobilize other state and local elected officials to take on executive movements of their own. And Obama has recently welcomed to the Oval Office both former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat severely wounded in a mass shooting five years ago, and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, long a prominent advocate of gun control.
His team is also looking at recommending that Obama issue an executive order directing federal law enforcement officials to change how they interpret the law that allows many private gun sales without a background check on the buyer.
To do that, though, Obama would have to ignore the clear intentions of a Congress that in 2013 rejected his proposal to require universal background checks. Republicans staunchly refused to entertain any such legislative proposal, inspiring an angry Obama to issue nearly two dozen smaller gun-related orders.
“That was a sprint … where we took a bunch of things that were out there and we pushed them over the finish line,” said a senior administration official, who would not agree to be named while discussing strategy. “But some of these things are a lot more complex.”
Obama could also be impeded by the courts. His move a little over a year ago to offer temporary protection from deportation to 5 million people in the U.S. illegally was shelved by a judge in Texas and is tied up in legal appeals.
Yet another obstacle to Obama’s executive action on guns is the president himself. A constitutional lawyer, Obama has repeatedly told his policy team in the White House counsel's office that he wants to be convinced there’s a strong case in defense of his authority to act.
If he does decide to move on guns, aides and others who have talked to him about it say it will be because Obama, whose home neighborhood in Chicago is near the heart of the gun violence epidemic, believes thousands of lives hang in the balance.
“The first thing he said to us was that Friday was the worst day of his presidency,” Murphy said of the day of the Newtown shooting. “I imagine that if, at the end of his presidency, nothing was done on gun violence, it would be at the top of his list of regrets. Just because of how personally connected he is.”
The view of some both inside and outside the White House: Either end the carnage or be caught trying.
"If this succeeds, it will save lives. If it fails legally, the cost is only political," Murphy said. "When you’re talking about weighing lives saved versus political capital lost, it’s a no-brainer.”
Advisors say they knew Obama was shifting into actively pursuing a change as the Oregon massacre unfolded.
Senior staffers ordered speechwriters to set aside what they were working on and begin drafting yet one more set of comments about a mass shooting. It was the 15th time the office had gotten such an order during the president’s tenure.
As Obama finished a meeting in the Situation Room that day, his top writer arrived in the Oval Office to deliver the comments. They were fine, Obama said, but he also planned to speak his mind. And at the podium, he seemed notably sad and angry.
The next day, Obama’s demeanor had shifted. He was moving toward a policy change.
He had asked his team, he said, to “scrub” the law, to figure out “what kinds of authorities do we have to enforce the laws that we have in place more effectively to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
If such powers exist, he suggested, he would use them if they would prevent “even a handful of these tragic deaths.”