WASHINGTON (AP) — Less than a month after a horrific elementary school shooting, the White House is fighting to keep the momentum for new gun legislation amid signs it’s losing ground in Congress to other pressing issues.
Vice President Joe Biden has invited the National Rifle Association and other gun-owner groups for talks at the White House on Thursday. On Wednesday, the vice president will meet with victims’ organizations and representatives from the video game and entertainment industries. The administration’s goal is to forge consensus over proposals to curb gun violence.
President Barack Obama wants Biden to report back to him with policy proposals by the end of January. Obama has vowed to move swiftly on the recommendations, a package expected to include both legislative proposals and executive action.
“He is mindful of the need to act,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.
But as the shock and sorrow over the Newtown, Conn., shooting fades, the tough fight facing the White House and gun-control backers is growing clearer. Gun-rights advocates, including the powerful NRA, are digging in against tighter legislation, conservative groups are launching pro-gun initiatives and the Senate’s top Republican has warned it could be spring before Capitol Hill begins considering any gun legislation.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Sunday. “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.”
Tuesday marked the second anniversary of the Tucson, Ariz., attack that killed six people and critically injured former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Following that shooting, Obama called for a national dialogue on gun violence. But his words were followed by little action.
Giffords took a prominent role in the gun debate on Tuesday’s anniversary. She and husband Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, wrote in an op-ed published in USA Today that their Americans for Responsible Solutions initiative would help raise money to support greater gun control efforts “to balance the influence of the gun lobby.” Kelly has indicated that he and Giffords want to become a prominent voice for gun control and hope to start a national conversation about gun violence.
There was also little national progress on curbing gun bloodshed following shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, a Texas Army base or a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, all of which occurred during Obama’s first term.
Still, the killing of 6- and 7-year-olds at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 did appear to stir a deeper reaction from the White House and Capitol Hill. Obama pushed gun control to the top of his domestic agenda for the first time and pledged to put the full weight of his presidency behind the issue. And some Republican and conservative lawmakers with strong gun rights records also took the extraordinary step of calling for a discussion on new measures.
But other gun-rights advocates have shown less flexibility. The NRA has rejected stricter gun legislation and suggested instead that the government put armed guards in every school in America as a way to curb violence. A coalition of conservative groups is also organizing a “gun appreciation day” later this month, to coincide with Obama’s inauguration.
The president hopes to announce his administration’s next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21.
Obama wants Congress to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, close loopholes that allow gun buyers to skirt background checks and restrict high-capacity magazines. Other recommendations to the Biden group include making gun trafficking a felony, getting the Justice Department to prosecute people caught lying on gun background-check forms and ordering federal agencies to send data to the National Gun Background Check Database.
Some of those steps could be taken through executive action, without the approval of Congress. White House officials say Obama will not finalize any actions until receiving Biden’s recommendations.
Gun-rights lawmakers and outside groups have also insisted that any policy response to the Newtown shooting also include an examination of mental health policies and the impact of violent movies and video games. To those people, the White House has pledged a comprehensive response.
“It is not a problem that can be solved by any specific action or single action that the government might take,” Carney said. “It’s a problem that encompasses issues of mental health, of education, as well as access to guns.”
In addition to Biden’s meetings this week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will meet with parent and teacher groups, while Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will meet with mental health and disability advocates.
The White House said other meetings are also scheduled with community organizations, business owners and religious leaders.