WASHINGTON – The White House is weighing a far broader and more comprehensive approach to curbing America’s gun violence than simply reinstating an expired ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, according to multiple people involved in the administration’s discussions.
A working group led by Vice President Joe Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that will require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors, the sources said.
To sell such changes, the White House is developing strategies to work around the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun rights group. One source said the strategies could include rallying support from Wal-Mart and other gun retailers for measures that will benefit their businesses. White House aides have also been in regular contact with advisers to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken gun-control advocate who could emerge as a powerful surrogate for the Obama administration’s agenda.
The Biden group, formed last month after a massacre at an elementary school killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, plans to submit a package of recommendations to President Barack Obama this month. Once Obama’s proposals are set, he plans to lead a public-relations offensive to generate popular support.
“They are very clearly committed to looking at this issue comprehensively,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, who has been involved in the discussions. The proposals under consideration, he added, are “a deeper exploration than just the assault-weapons ban.”
The gun-control push is just one part of an ambitious political agenda that Obama has pledged to pursue after his re-election victory in November, including comprehensive immigration reform, climate-change legislation and long-term deficit reduction. Obama also faces a reshuffling of his Cabinet, and a looming debate over the nation’s debt ceiling that will compete for his time and attention in the coming months.
In addition to potential legislative proposals, Biden’s group has expanded its focus to include measures that will not need congressional approval and could be quickly implemented by executive action, according to interest-group leaders who have discussed options with Biden and key Cabinet secretaries. Possibilities include changes to federal mental health programs and modernization of gun-tracking efforts by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
“Simply coming up with one or two aspects of it really falls short of the magnitude of the gun issue in the country,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Wexler was among a dozen law enforcement leaders who met with Biden and other administration leaders in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The Dec. 20 summit, which stretched an hour beyond an allotted one hour, included Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Biden “wanted to talk to us about the assault-weapons ban, automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines,” said Hennepin County (Minnesota) Sheriff Richard Stanek, president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association.
The vice president said the White House group will consider a variety of proposals — from requiring background checks for all gun buyers to creating a new database that would allow the ATF to track all gun sales, according to participants.
Stanek said the meeting also included significant discussion of mental health issues, violence in video games and movies, and the poor quality of information contained in databases used to conduct criminal background checks before issuing gun permits.
Some of the options the administration is considering may not ultimately be included in Obama’s package.
A White House spokesman said Biden’s group is in the midst of its review and has made no decisions on its final recommendations.
The White House is also developing strategies to navigate the rocky and emotionally fraught terrain of gun politics once final policy decisions are made. The administration is quietly talking with a diverse array of interest groups, including religious leaders, mental health professionals and hunters, to build as broad a coalition as possible, those involved in the discussions said.
The president is expected to face fierce opposition from the NRA and its allies in Congress, including most Republicans and some Democrats.
But Biden signaled to those involved in the policy discussions that the White House is not afraid of taking on the NRA. At the Dec. 20 meeting, according to Stanek, when one law enforcement leader suggested focusing on only the most popular proposals, Biden responded: “Look, what I’m asking you for is your candid opinion and ideas about extreme gun violence. Leave the politics to the president. That’s our job with Congress.”
In response to the shooting in Newtown, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, called for installing armed police officers in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said Dec. 21.
One potential strategy will be to win support for specific measures from interest groups that are normally aligned with the NRA, according to one person who works closely with the administration on gun-related issues.
For instance, this person suggested, Wal-Mart and other major gun retailers may have an incentive to support closing a loophole that allows people to bypass background checks if they purchase firearms at gun shows or through other types of private sales. That could result in more people buying guns in retail stores.
Heightened sensitivities and raw nerves since the Newtown shooting have led to toned-down displays at gun shows and prompted some officials and sponsors to cancel the well-attended exhibitions altogether. Several gun shows, all about an hour’s drive from Newtown, have been canceled.
Obama’s advisers have calculated that the longer they wait, the more distance there is from the Newtown massacre and the greater the risk that the bipartisan political will to tackle gun violence will dissipate. “This is not something that I will be putting off,” Obama said last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
At the White House meeting, Stanek said, “the vice president indicated that there was a very short timeline for him to get back to the president with his recommendations because the American public has a short memory.”
Already, three weeks after the shooting, gun-control advocates are growing impatient with a legislative process that is just beginning. “As we get involved in these ad nauseam debates over the Second Amendment, our children are still at risk,” said Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. ” ‘Debating’ is not the action verb we need to protect our children.”
With the start of the 113th Congress last Friday, several lawmakers filed bills to address gun violence. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who cowrote a 1994 assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004, plans to introduce legislation this month that would ban the sale or manufacture of about 120 firearms, including semi-automatic rifles and military-style handguns, as well as ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.
The expired federal assault-weapons ban prohibited the manufacturing of 19 models of semi-automatic guns classified as assault weapons, including certain rifles and shotguns. The law also banned ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. But it did not ban the sale of previously manufactured assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Since the law’s sunset, efforts in Congress over the past decade to reinstate the ban have faced stiff opposition from the NRA and the firearms industry and have never passed.
Adler, who has submitted recommendations to Biden’s group, said he has told administration officials that they need to pursue multiple measures to increase their chances of success.
“We can’t put all our protection-effort eggs in one basket with one piece of legislation,” he said. “We’ve got to do more than that.”