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President Barack Obama has raised the stakes for national action to reduce gun violence following the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, but the White House and top Democrats in Congress continue to choose their words carefully on a subject that has bedeviled the party for two decades.
After Obama issued an urgent call to act Sunday night in Newtown — declaring, “We can’t tolerate this anymore” and vowing to use all the power of his office to find a solution to the issue — the White House on Monday declined to talk about any details.
“I don’t have a specific agenda to announce to you today,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. He reiterated the president’s support for reinstating the assault weapons ban, pointing out that Obama has held that position since the measure expired in 2004. Carney said broadly that improving background checks was important.
But the president has done almost nothing to push for the assault weapons ban or other gun control measures in his first term. Other agenda items took precedence over a fight many in his own party didn’t want and didn’t think they could win against the powerful National Rifle Association’s lobby.
The odds remain stacked against any significant legislative action, and many other initiatives will compete for the nation’s attention.
The NRA hasn’t lost a major legislative battle in Congress in memory, and Democratic leaders, including longtime gun rights supporter Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., were in no mood to get bogged down in a gun debate after the other massacres that have occurred on Obama’s watch.
But over the weekend there was a palpable sense in the Capitol and at the White House that the faces of 20 little children slaughtered at an elementary school might prompt more than the usual moments of silence followed by partisan squabbling and, ultimately, inaction.
“There is an earthquake of a change that has come about,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said. “I feel a sense of urgency, but I also feel relief that something is finally going to happen. ... I haven’t had this feeling before.”
Ironically, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin III, moved out front Monday with more specifics than the president. Manchin, a lifelong NRA member, called for gun control measures targeting large capacity gun clips as well as military-style assault rifles.
“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anyone that needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting,” Manchin said Monday on MSNBC.