Obama puts new heft behind gun controls following Conn. shooting

The White House on Tuesday said President Obama will actively support efforts to reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons, prevent the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips and close the “gun show loophole” that helps people avoid background checks.

The move came as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told House Republicans at a closed-door conference they needed to “have a discussion on guns,” while the National Rifle Association spoke out for the first time since 20 schoolchildren were killed by a lone gunman in a crime that shocked the nation. 

The nation’s top gun lobby said it was made up of “4 million moms and dads, sons and daughters” who were “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by what happened in Newtown, Conn.

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The NRA promised a “major news conference” on Friday and said it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” though it offered no specifics. 

Taken together, the moves suggest the landscape for gun-control legislation has changed dramatically since the shootings in Newtown, where funerals continued on Tuesday for victims as young as 6 years old. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing legislation to renew the assault-weapon ban, and is expected to take over the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, which would give her jurisdiction on the issue. 

Boehner said Republicans wouldn’t do “anything knee-jerk” in response to the killings, but said the party should be open to examining both mental health and gun policies in light of the tragedy, according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

Boehner also warned the conference that its members need to be “circumspect” in their observations, adding that “it’s not helpful” for lawmakers to make remarks about arming teachers to prevent school shootings. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggested Sunday that the tragedy could have been lessened if a teacher at the school had been armed.

Obama has long supported the assault-weapon ban, but did little in his first term to seek its renewal. 

Since Friday, however, he and other Democrats have signaled a new willingness to tackle the issue. 

Obama held an extended phone discussion on Tuesday with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a longtime NRA member who this week said “everything should be on the table” when it comes to gun violence.”

The president has been “heartened” by such comments, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. 

Obama has asked members of his Cabinet to suggest policy changes that could help reduce gun violence. The White House effort will be spearheaded by Vice President Biden.

The assault-weapon ban, which expired in 2004, outlawed certain semi-automatic firearms. That law restricted a range of weapons, including versions of the AR-15 rifle that were used both in the Connecticut shooting and in the D.C.-area sniper killings.

But the law has a controversial record. 

While some models were specifically outlawed, others were only banned if they included so-called “cosmetic” enhancements, like pistol grips or detachable magazines. 

Gun ownership proponents have pointed to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Justice that find that the relatively rare use of assault weapons in the commission of crimes makes measuring the effectiveness of the ban difficult, if not impossible. 

But proponents, including Feinstein, suggest that the ban made the weapons scarcer and drove up the costs, thereby deterring crime.

Carney emphasized Obama was seeking a comprehensive legislative package that also addresses mental health services. He said that the White House also would examine violent imagery in entertainment, including video games. 

“I think there are cultural issues ... that can contribute to the broader issue of gun violence,” Carney said. “One of the reasons the president wants to expand the net ... is he recognizes that.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign platform vowed to reinstate the assault-weapons ban and close the gun-show loophole, but he all but abandoned the push once he got to the White House due to opposition from House Democrats. 

Indeed, when Attorney General Eric Holder in early 2009 announced his support for reinstating the assault-weapons ban, 65 House Democrats wrote to the White House attacking the proposal.

“Law-abiding Americans use these guns for all the same reasons they use any other kind of gun — competitive shooting, hunting and defending their homes and families,” the Democrats wrote at the time.

Carney defended the president’s record on Tuesday, noting the Department of Justice had worked to beef up background checks and that Obama had offered consistent support for a renewal of the assault-weapon ban. But Carney also conceded that the president acknowledged a need for change on gun policy.

“I think he made clear on Sunday that we as a nation, and he as a member and leader of this nation, need to do more,” Carney said. 

House Democratic leaders announced that they’re establishing a task force to examine the causes of — and potential solutions to — gun violence. 

The group will be headed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Vietnam veteran and hunter. 

“This is not a war on guns,” Thompson said Tuesday. “Gun owners and hunters across this country have every right to own legitimate guns for legitimate purposes.”