WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is weighing 19 steps to curb gun violence that he could enact without approval from a deeply divided Congress, congressional officials said, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was poised to sign a bill that could create the nation's toughest gun law.
Those steps, which could include stricter action against people who lie on gun sale background checks and tougher penalties against gun trafficking, will be based on recommendations from Vice-President Joe Biden's gun task force, which could be unveiled as early as Wednesday.
White House officials believe moving swiftly on gun proposals at a national level — before the shock over last month's massacre at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, fades — gives Obama the best chance to get his proposals through Congress.
At a Monday news conference, Obama endorsed what will be his plan's most sweeping and contentious elements, including banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and instituting universal background checks. Those will require approval from Congress and face intense opposition from the influential National Rifle Association, which enjoys strong support from Republicans as well as several Democrats.
In New York, Cuomo managed to quickly reach a deal with legislative leaders who promised to pass the most restrictive gun law in the nation.
The measure easily passed the state Senate and is expected to breeze through the Assembly after the chamber takes it up Tuesday. Once Cuomo signs it, the Democratic governor will make his state the first to pass new gun control laws since the Connecticut shooting that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators.
"This is a scourge on society," Cuomo said Monday night, one month after the massacre. "At what point do you say, 'No more innocent loss of life.'"
The bill had bipartisan support, with the leader of the Republican-held Senate saying it does not infringe on the Constitution's Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizen to bear arms.
"This is going to go after those who are bringing illegal guns into the state, who are slaughtering people in New York City," said Republican Dean Skelos, of suburban Long Island. "This is going to put people in jail and keep people in jail who shouldn't be out on the street in the first place."
The governor confirmed the proposal, previously worked out in closed sessions, called for a tougher assault weapons ban and restrictions on ammunition and the sale of guns, as well as a mandatory police registry of assault weapons, grandfathering in assault weapons already in private hands.
It would create a more powerful tool to require the reporting of mentally ill people who say they intend to use a gun illegally and would address the unsafe storage of guns, the governor confirmed.
"This will be the toughest gun control package in the nation," said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, leader of the Independent Democrat Conference that shares majority control with Republican senators. "All in all, it is a comprehensive, balanced approach that will save lives."
The bill faced little opposition, though one Republican legislator accused Cuomo, seen by his supporters as a possible candidate for president in 2016, of political opportunism.
In Washington, Obama and Biden will face a much tougher task. The pair met Monday afternoon to discuss the vice-president's recommendations, officials said. Ahead of that meeting, Biden huddled with a dozen Democrats in the House of Representatives who have formed their own gun violence task force and whose political muscle will be needed to push legislation through Congress.
The president, facing a polarized Congress reluctant to tighten restrictions, said lawmakers would have to "examine their own conscience" as they tackle gun control legislation after the horrifying Connecticut school shootings.
Obama is weighing 19 steps that could be taken through the president's executive powers alone, congressional officials said.
Advocacy groups have been pushing Obama to order the Justice Department to crack down on those who lie on background checks; only a tiny number are now prosecuted. Such a step has support from the NRA, which has consistently argued that existing laws must be enforced before new ones are considered.
Obama also could take steps ordering federal agencies to make more data on gun crimes available and conduct more research on the issue, something Republican congressional majorities have limited through language in budget bills, advocates said.
The president's proposals are also expected to include steps for improving school safety and mental health care, as well as recommendations for addressing violence in entertainment and video games.
A Democratic lawmaker who met with Biden on Monday said the vice-president was likely to have given Obama proposals for allowing schools flexibility in spending federal grant money so they could take steps toward safety, including hiring school resource officers, instituting mental health intervention or making repairs like putting locks on doors. Grants could also go to communities to institute programs to get guns away from people who shouldn't have them, said the lawmaker, adding these were steps the president could take without Congress.
The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposals hadn't been announced publicly.
At the same time Obama is vowing not to back off his support for sweeping gun legislation that would require congressional backing, though the NRA and its allies in Congress are fiercely opposed to any laws that would limit access to guns and ammunition.
The assault weapons ban, which Obama has long supported, is expected to face the toughest road in Congress, which passed a 10-year ban on the high-grade, military-style weapons in 1994. Supporters didn't have the votes to renew it once it expired.
Obama will also need congressional help to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines, like the ones used by the Newtown shooter, and to require background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a gun. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 per cent of gun sales happen with no background checks, such as at gun shows and by private sellers over the Internet or through classified ads.
The president's new resolve follows a lack of movement in tackling gun violence throughout much of his first term, despite several high-profile shootings. He called the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the worst day of his presidency and vowed to take action.
Parents of children slain in the Connecticut school massacre called for a national dialogue to help prevent similar tragedies.
"We want the Sandy Hook school shootings to be recalled as the turning point where we brought our community and communities across the nation together and set a real course for change," said Tom Bittman, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise group.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Erica Werner and Michael Gormley contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
- Politics & Government
- President Barack Obama
- Andrew Cuomo
- background checks
- Joe Biden