WASHINGTON — President Obama committed himself to placing gun control at the top of his second-term agenda, redoubling his intention to tackle the problem of gun violence in spite of daunting political obstacles that have frustrated similar efforts for years.
Appearing before reporters in the White House briefing room Wednesday, Obama sought to erase any doubts that he is prepared to stake his prestige on combating what he called an “epidemic of gun violence.” Although he spoke in the aftermath of the massacre last Friday at a Connecticut elementary school, he placed the issue in a broader context, specifically mentioning people killed since then in the “lesser-known tragedies that visit small towns and big cities all across America every day.”
As a first step, Obama gave Vice President Joe Biden the task of coming up with specific proposals before the end of next month. Working with Cabinet members and outside organizations, Biden is to come up with ideas that probably will include actions Obama can take administratively to bypass potential clashes with Congress.
The working group is expected to examine not only proposals for gun control measures, but also steps to improve services for the mentally ill and to push back against violence in popular culture.
Obama promised that he would detail “very specific” initiatives early next year, including in his State of the Union address, and sought to rebut the idea that Biden’s group would be another ineffective Washington commission.
Biden has long experience with the politics of gun control from his service as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 1980s and 1990s. But neither his familiarity with the issue nor Obama’s determination to press forward changes the extremely difficult nature of the fight that lies ahead for them.
In many respects, the climate for congressional action is less favorable than it was in 1994, when President Clinton’s exhaustive personal lobbying campaign for a ban on assault-style weapons managed to prevail in a House of Representatives that Democrats controlled by two votes.
Despite an uptick in the aftermath of the latest tragedy, public support for stricter gun control laws remains significantly lower today than in the 1990s, according to polls.
“The politics are absolutely gruesome,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton advisor who worked to reelect Obama in 2012. “In many areas, the country is moving left, certainly in terms of gay rights, and on issues like marijuana. But from the time I was working with President Clinton, we’ve moved significantly to the right on gun control.”
Patrick J. Griffin, a Clinton White House aide who was at the center of the fight over the 1994 crime bill, called it “probably tougher than healthcare” to get through Congress.
A handful of pro-gun-rights Democrats have stepped forward this week to suggest the need for tougher gun laws or at least a need for what Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia called “a conversation on everything.”
Republicans, however, have largely remained silent, making the Republican-controlled House of Representatives a particular stumbling block.
Asked whether GOP lawmakers would soon speak out in favor of tighter laws, Republican strategist Whit Ayres said no, “because they don’t believe that more gun laws are likely to stop gun violence committed by mentally ill people.”
Obama alluded to the daunting legislative math he faces by noting that many House Republicans represent districts that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won last month. Indeed, a majority of the new House — 219 representatives out of 435 — will be Republicans from districts that Obama failed to carry, noted David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
In his remarks, Obama pledged to push ahead regardless of that political arithmetic. “The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing,” he said.
He called on the new Congress to vote “in a timely manner” on banning the sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and on a requirement for background checks before all gun purchases. Those proposals, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others plan to introduce as early as next month, have repeatedly been blocked in Congress by the gun lobby and its allies.
The president also said the Senate should confirm a permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a position that has been filled on an interim basis over the last six years because of opposition from gun rights forces.
Obama did not preview how he might try to prod reluctant lawmakers, but employing the memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims will probably be one technique.
Progress could be made “if those of us who were sent here to serve the public trust can summon even one tiny iota of the courage those teachers, that principal, in Newtown summoned on Friday,” he said.
At one point, a reporter suggested that the president had essentially been absent from the gun control fight over the last four years, through repeated episodes of mass gun violence.
“I don’t think I’ve been on vacation,” Obama said after mentioning some first-term priorities, including dealing with the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”
But, he went on to say, “all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington.”
The school shootings, Obama said, were “a wakeup call for all of us to say that if we are not getting right the need to keep our children safe, then nothing else matters. And it’s my commitment to make sure that we do.”
The nation’s shifting political landscape could make many of Obama’s fellow Democrats less reluctant to take on the gun issue than in the past.
Ever since Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 election, which Democratic strategists blamed in part on opposition from gun rights voters, “it really became part of the Democrats’ DNA on Capitol Hill that you deal with gun control at your great peril,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
Since then, however, demographic changes have enhanced the Democratic Party’s power among segments of the electorate that favor gun control, including city and suburban residents, who are a growing segment of the overall electorate. Meantime, Republican strength is increasingly concentrated in places, especially rural America, and among voter groups, particularly older white males, where backing for gun rights is strongest but that are a declining share of the overall vote.
Democrats have seen Obama’s personal involvement as a key element of any effort to change gun laws.
“He is president. He has to lead. I don’t see any downside for him,” said Steve Elmendorff, a former top House aide. “The downside is for Democrats in gun-friendly states — people from the big square states.”
Timing could also become a factor. Joseph Califano, who was a special assistant to Lyndon B. Johnson, and other supporters of gun control have emphasized the need to move quickly, before the emotions of Sandy Hook fade.
“Sad but true, these things start receding from the back of people’s minds and the urgency sometimes dissipates,” Manley said. “Hopefully this is going to be different this time around.”
Obama, who chose to deliver his remarks in the room named for White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, permanently disabled by the gunman who tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, defended the measured pace he has laid out.
“I would hope that our memories aren’t so short that what we saw in Newtown isn’t lingering with us, that we don’t remain passionate about it only a month later,” he said.
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.