The gun-control agenda that President Obama unveiled with urgency on Wednesday now faces an uncertain fate in a bitterly divided Congress, where Republican opposition hardened and centrist Democrats remained noncommittal after a month of feverish public debate.
By pursuing an expansive overhaul of the nation’s gun laws, Obama is wagering that public opinion has evolved enough after a string of mass shootings to force passage of politically contentious measures that Congress has long stymied.
Yet there was no indication on Wednesday that the mood on Capitol Hill has changed much. Within hours of Obama’s formal policy rollout at the White House, Republicans who had previously said they were open to a discussion about gun violence condemned his agenda as violating the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
“I’m confident there will be bipartisan opposition to his proposal,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement.
The Senate plans to begin taking up Obama’s proposals next week, with the House waiting to see what the Democrat-controlled Senate passes first, congressional aides said. The Senate is likely to take a piecemeal approach, eventually holding up-or-down votes on the individual elements of Obama’s plan rather than trying to muscle through a single comprehensive bill, aides said.
Obama, in an emotional White House ceremony, outlined four major legislative proposals aimed at curbing what he called “the epidemic of gun violence in this country”: universal background checks for all gun buyers, a crackdown on gun trafficking, a ban on military-style assault weapons and a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
Obama also signed paperwork initiating 23 executive actions that include steps to strengthen the existing background-check system, promote research on gun violence and provide training in “active shooter situations.” He also nominated Todd Jones, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to become the agency’s permanent director.
As important as the executive actions are, Obama said, “they are in no way a substitute” for the legislative proposals he sent to Congress.
“We have to examine ourselves in our hearts and ask yourselves: What is important?” Obama said. He added, “If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough, we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this to continue, then change will — change will come.”
But on Capitol Hill, where two decades of gun-control efforts have landed in the political graveyard, leaders of Obama’s own party do not necessarily share his views.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) stopped short of embracing Obama’s proposals, calling them “thoughtful recommendations” and saying that he would “consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence in our society early this year.”
In contrast with his role in the major policy debates during Obama’s first term, Reid is likely to step back on guns, according to Senate Democratic aides. He will leave it to Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to shepherd the legislation, at least for now.
Reid is concerned about the potential political impact on fellow Democrats representing rural or conservative states, and he believes gun control could become a significant issue for at least 10 of the 23 Democratic Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, aides said.
The four measures Obama presented — which, taken together, rank among the most ambitious legislative projects of his presidency — appear to have varying levels of support in Congress.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers have calculated that the assault-weapons ban — a version of which passed in 1994 but expired a decade later — has the toughest odds, according to gun-control advocates in regular contact with administration officials. Also in jeopardy, they said, is the proposal to prohibit high-capacity magazines.
But a broad consensus seems more likely to build around universal background checks, which senior administration officials said is Obama’s top priority. Schumer said the idea is “at the sweet spot” of what is politically possible.
The gun trafficking proposal, which would impose new penalties on those who buy multiple firearms and hand them off to criminals, also could find majority support.
“If you are left in a position of having to oppose universal background checks and a firearms trafficking statute, that’s tough for responsible Republicans,” said Matt Bennett, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank.