On Wednesday, a little more than a month after the deadly shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama will unveil a series of proposals aimed at reducing gun violence in America, broaching one of the most politically toxic issues in Washington even as he gears up for a series of critical economic battles with Congress. As details about his plans become clear, however, questions remain as to what, if anything, the president will be able to get past a bitterly divided Congress -- and how much he can get done without it.
In the aftermath of the December shootings, in which 20 first-graders and six adult faculty members were killed in a shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a number of pro-gun Democrats -- and even a handful of Republicans -- have shown a newfound openness to considering new restrictions on gun laws.
Mr. Obama, too, who has long supported laws like the Assault Weapons Ban but had previously done little to push for them, made it clear within days of the shooting that he meant to act, tasking Vice President Joe Biden to develop a series of actionable recommendations to reduce gun violence. Biden, the original author of the now-expired Assault Weapons Ban, has spent the last few weeks soliciting recommendations from various stakeholders on the issue, and has already suggested that his proposals will include calls for universal background checks, reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban, and stricter regulations on high-capacity magazine ammunition clips.
In a press conference yesterday, Mr. Obama reaffirmed those expectations, and suggested he will take administrative "steps" to implement his plan where possible. Biden told House Democrats Monday that the president is mulling over 19 possible executive orders, according to Politico - changes to the law Mr. Obama can make without congressional approval.
As for broader-reaching legislation to tighten gun laws, gun control activists are expressing optimism. However, the major roadblock to passing such laws -- much less a comprehensive gun control package -- remain the same: Republicans, who face enormous pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA) over gun rights, control the agenda of the House of Representatives, and there's no indication they're ready to budge on the issue.
"I don't think there's any gun control issue that could get a majority of Republican support," said Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA, and an expert in gun laws. Barring a "time machine," he said, "any comprehensive legislation might be D.O.A."
A longstanding struggle
The expectation that any gun control-related measure will stall out in Congress hardly comes from out of the blue. Despite a spate of mass shootings over the three decades -- from Columbine to Tucson to Aurora to Virginia Tech -- gun rules have, as a general rule, become more lax rather than stringent. Although Congress did pass a law providing new funds for states to gather background information on potential gun purchasers after the Virginia Tech massacre, to date the most deadly mass shooting in American history, few other meaningful regulations have made its way through Congress. Meanwhile, the Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, and states across the country have passed all sorts of laws making it legal to carry concealed weapons everywhere from schools and daycare centers to bars, churches, hospitals and sports stadiums. After the Sandy Hook massacre, legislators in a handful of states have also proposed laws enabling teachers to bring guns to school.
Even if a majority of Congress members decide to buck these trends, many of them, primarily Republicans, face the prospect of the NRA's wrath -- and its pocketbook. The lobbying group spends heavily to prop up pro-gun candidates, and while its recent effectiveness has been disputed by gun control advocates, there's no question that the organization maintains immense grassroots organizing capabilities.
The Sandy Hook shootings did nothing to change that: After waiting briefly to comment on the murders, the NRA came out as vocally opposed to gun laws as ever, and is as boldly pro-gun as before. Instead of tightening gun laws, it proposed placing an armed guard in every school. Yesterday, it released a new shooting-oriented video game aimed at children aged four and up.
Moreover, there is little to no indication that the necessary number of House Republicans would support any restrictions on gun laws, or that Boehner would even allow such a bill to see the light of day on the House floor. Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said the speaker would "take a look at" the Obama administration's offer, but did not respond to questions about his own ideas as to means to effectively reduce gun violence. In the aftermath of the chaotic "fiscal cliff" negotiations -- which resulted in tax hikes and left Boehner's reputation battered even within members of his own caucus -- his willingness to compromise with Democrats on one of the most divisive issues in modern politics seems increasingly unlikely: He recently told House Republicans he would no longer be negotiating one-on-one with the president.
Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a pro-gun senator who has recently expressed a newfound openness to new gun laws, was skeptical that any meaningful legislation would get past the House.