President Obama to demand new sweeping restrictions on firearms

President Obama on Wednesday will demand sweeping new gun restrictions — including a proposed ban on assault weapons — that herald a fierce battle with gun-rights advocates on Capitol Hill.

The package will also include a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and expanded background checks for gun buyers, the White House announced Tuesday. The proposals will be unveiled at an 11:45 a.m. event attended by pro-gun-reform lawmakers and interest groups. 

Gun reform has been a third rail in Washington for many years, but there’s some indication that Obama intends to use his bully pulpit to pressure Congress on the issue in a manner that hasn’t been tried in decades. 

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Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Congress’s loudest advocate for tougher gun laws, said Tuesday that the White House is weighing a plan to use its widely successful Obama for America “campaign mold” to sell the proposed reforms to the public.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday refused to outline specifics or commit to the president hitting the campaign trail, as he did during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. But he hinted that Obama would try to mobilize supporters behind his gun plan.

“The president believes and has learned over the course of his first term that it is vitally important, when trying to move forward on an agenda that is both necessary and enjoys popular support, that we engage the public,” Carney said. 

“And that’s an approach he’s taken for some time now, and I think, broadly speaking, it’s an approach he’ll continue to take.”

Republicans have lined up against new restrictions on guns since Obama tapped Vice President Biden to head a gun violence-prevention task force in response to last month’s shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six school staffers were murdered by a lone gunman who carried a military-style rifle.

GOP leaders, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are warning that Congress simply doesn’t have the time to tackle a thorny issue like gun reform early this year because looming budget battles — including those over the debt-ceiling hike and sequester cuts — will consume all the political oxygen on Capitol Hill. 

But Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, on Tuesday said Congress “is fully able to handle a number of issues at one time.”

“The president wants to move this forward quickly. I agree with him on that,” Hoyer said.

Recent polls indicate that the public strongly supports a number of gun reforms, including expanded background checks and, to a lesser degree, a ban on assault weapons. Still, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been defiant in its opposition to tougher gun laws in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and even gun-control supporters are dubious that significant changes can survive a trip through Congress.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) conceded Tuesday that even some Democrats would probably buck the president to oppose a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

“It’s going to be very difficult, much more difficult than most people realize,” Sanchez said in an interview with MSNBC.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), a longtime opponent of gun reforms like the assault-weapons ban, said the Newtown massacre has altered attitudes and the political landscape surrounding guns — both in his district and on Capitol Hill. But, while he’s withholding judgment until he sees Obama’s proposal, Rahall suggested any new gun limits would be a tough pill to swallow.

“It’s a very big leap of faith for the people I represent who have that legitimate fear of going down that slippery slope. If you open the door slightly, then it opens the floodgate to worse measures in the future to attack the Second Amendment,” Rahall said. “Cigarette smoking’s the perfect example of that slippery slope that we went down. Now you can’t smoke a cigarette anywhere.”

Whatever action Obama decides to take, the ball is back in Congress’s court next week as the House’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force readies for a full complement of daily meetings with gun experts and advocates. Among those set to journey to Capitol Hill for talks is the NRA’s lobbying head, Chris Cox, according to McCarthy.

Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who was injured in the 2011 Tucson shooting that almost killed then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), conceded that some of Obama’s proposals — particularly the assault-weapons ban — face a tough road in Congress.

“It’s a pretty divisive idea,” he said, “and I do think there’s going to be significant opposition to it.” 

Barber said he’s focusing on three areas where he thinks there’s a chance of bipartisan support: improvements in mental-health screening; universal background checks for gun purchases; and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“We were shot with a Glock [handgun] that had 33 bullets in the magazine, and virtually every bullet hit somebody — more than once, in some cases,” he said. “Had he [the shooter] had less bullets in that magazine, obviously, fewer people would have been killed and wounded.”

The certainty of tough resistance in Congress has put a greater focus on the steps Obama might take unilaterally to fight gun violence. The president on Wednesday is expected to outline 19 executive actions designed for that purpose, according to Capitol Hill Democrats briefed on his plan. Those executive actions are likely to include more aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws, increased federal research on gun violence and stronger prosecution of those who lie on gun background checks.

“I’m confident there are some steps we can take that don’t require legislation,” Obama said at a press conference Monday.

 Some gun reformers see those steps as the only likely response to Newtown. 

“I have doubts that Congress can do anything,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), an ardent gun-control advocate, said Tuesday. “If I had to bet, whatever gets done will be by the president’s executive order.”