Black lawmakers push president to take firm action on gun control

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus urged President Obama to take action on gun control legislation Tuesday at their first meeting with the president in more than two years. 

Obama “reaffirmed his commitment” to the issue during the White House meeting, one administration official said. 

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The president told the lawmakers that he will focus on gun violence and acknowledged the problem wasn’t just about tragic events like the one in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six educators were killed by a lone gunman in December. 

He gave examples of other places where gun violence was a problem, according to one attendee of the meeting. 

Obama started the year with a serious effort to win congressional approval of gun legislation. But his effort appeared to fail in the Senate, where legislation to impose tougher background checks on gun purchases failed to win 60 votes and overcome a filibuster. 

Many black lawmakers have noted that a disproportionate number of African-Americans are victims of gun violence. Trayvon Martin, a black teenager killed in Florida last year in an altercation with a neighborhood watch volunteer, did not come up, a source familiar with the meeting said. The trial of the man accused of killing Martin has received enormous attention in the last few weeks.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who attended the meeting, said Obama is “totally committed” to passing tougher gun laws in his second term. The trick, she said, is getting Congress to agree and “not allowing the National Rifle Association to control the agenda.”

“We’ve got to fight harder and the members of the public have to continue to speak out,” Lee said. “It’s up to us; I think they [White House officials] are doing everything that they can do. It’s the House that has not allowed these bills to come to the floor.”

Lee said Democrats are still seeking a comprehensive solution that includes efforts to ban military-style rifles, limit the number of bullets in magazines and take on inner-city hand-gun violence. She noted that public opinion polls show overwhelming support for those provisions and lamented that the same enthusiasm hasn’t materialized on Capitol Hill.

“It’s the optics that’s holding us up,” she said, “but hopefully we’re going to break through that.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), another attendee of Tuesday’s meeting, said Obama has not “ceded any ground” on the issue, adding that he “is particularly concerned about the urban gun violence that happens in places like Chicago.”

“But he’s perplexed as to how Congress could not have moved after the heinous tragedy in Sandy Hook,” she added.

The meeting between Obama and the CBC came just days an eruption of gun violence in Chicago, with at least 74 people shot — 12 fatally — over the long July 4 weekend.

The lawmakers discussed a range of other issues with Obama, including education, immigration and the economy. 

Black lawmakers at times have been frustrated with Obama’s handling of the economy and with his Cabinet appointments, and the aide acknowledged there were some tough questions. 

"There’s a certain level of immediacy these folks want,” the administration official said. “They want to see stuff get done.” 

After the meeting, caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) noted there are “obvious differences in the way we want things to go forward and the way the White House wants to move things forward.” 

Black lawmakers have sometimes criticized the administration, for example, for not doing more to boost black employment. 

An administration official acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion in the execution of job training programs and other issues pertaining to young people and employment. 

The official added that Obama has certain ideas on the programs while members have other ideas. 

“They’re on the same page but the way they want to execute some of these ideas is different,” the official said. 

Some lawmakers in the meeting raised the issue of backlogs in benefits for veterans. 

Obama agreed, calling it “inexcusably long,” according to one attendee. 

Obama told the lawmakers that he assigned Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to the task to make sure that turns around. 

For the most part, while there have been differences between the CBC and Obama over the economy and his Cabinet, lawmakers exiting Tuesday’s meeting presented a unified front. 

“We’re on the same page,” Fudge said. 

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the group’s members and the third-ranking House Democrat, said lawmakers asked Obama to make sure initiatives like broadband deployment and infrastructure improvements would be “targeted” to “communities of need.” 

“The president was supportive to that approach,” Clyburn said. 

Fudge called the meeting “very productive,” and said she was not concerned that Obama and the CBC had not met for 790 days. 

“I don’t have a concern,” Fudge said. “I’ve been chair about 6 months, and the request that we made of the president has been answered. I think it was an excellent conversation, and I think the lines of communication have not only been open but actually we can have broader and deeper conversations after the meeting today.” 

Fudge made headlines in March with a letter to Obama that criticized his Cabinet appointments, saying they had “hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity.” 

Since then, the president has appointed former Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx as Transportation secretary and former CBC chairman Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. 

Asked Tuesday if she had discussed her diversity concerns with the president, Fudge said she simply “thanked the president for Mel Watt and Anthony Foxx.” 

A White House aide confirmed that no one in the meeting took issue with the lack of diversity in the Cabinet. 

The group also spent a significant amount of time discussing strategies to address the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act. 

Fudge called the conversation a “beginning,” saying that the lawmakers discussed how to strengthen Section II of the act and how to develop alternative formulas that might allow the federal government the authority to have pre-clearance authority on changes to state voting laws. 

The Supreme Court in June threw out a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, arguing formulas used to determine that some states required “preclearance” was outdated. 

—The story was posted at 1:53 p.m. and updated at 5:43 p.m. and at 7:47 p.m.