Barack Obama could take unilateral action to introduce tougher gun control measures in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress, Joe Biden, the vice-president, said on Wednesday. Promising "immediate action, urgent action" as he met pro-gun safety groups and victims of gun violence at the White House, Biden suggested that Obama could force through some changes by himself.
"The president is going to act," he said. "There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken.?.?. as well as legislative action."
Obama has given the vice-president the task of drawing up plans for new gun regulations following last month's massacre at a primary school in Connecticut, in which 20 children died. His task force is said to be considering stricter measures than had been expected, such as a universal background check system for buyers and a national database to track weapons through later sales.
It is also reportedly poised to propose tougher punishments for those caught carrying guns near schools, and stricter mental health checks before people are permitted to buy firearms. Democrats have already pledged to propose the reintroduction of a ban on assault weapons, such as the rifle used by the Connecticut gunman Adam Lanza, which was allowed to expire in 2004.
Biden said the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary on Dec 14 had awoken "the conscience of the country" and that addressing the scourge of gun violence was now a "moral issue". "I don't think anything has touched the heart of the American people so profoundly as seeing those and learning of those young children not only being shot but riddled with bullets," he said.
Biden claimed that among those in favour of new controls, there was "a pretty wide consensus on three or four or five things in the gun safety area that could and should be done". Any attempt by Obama to force through significant new regulations on the basis that they comply with existing law is sure to be fiercely opposed by Republicans and the influential pro-gun lobby.
New legislation must be approved by both houses of Congress before it can be signed by the president. Republicans control the House of Representatives. While some in the party have softened their opposition to new measures, others are under pressure to block Obama or face being unseated from inside the party.
Prof James Jacobs, a gun control expert at New York University School of Law, said the White House's options for gun control by executive order were "extremely limited". "There's no way to avoid going through Congress for significant gun control," he said.
Obama could use executive powers to order limited reforms to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the agency responsible for enforcing gun laws. Executive orders could also tighten reporting rules for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) a database of people ineligible to buy guns because of a criminal record or a mental health issue.
In New York, governor Andrew Cuomo proposed an extension of the state's already tight gun control laws, including further restrictions on assault weapons.