Gun rights: What can Obama do? What might he do?

President Obama has vowed to use 'whatever power this office holds' to prevent future mass shootings, following last Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Conn. That could mean action beyond gun rights.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama walks off after delivering a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children.

Three days after the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, the White House is making clear that this time – this mass shooting, in which 20 first-graders were gunned down – is different.

But President Obama has also made clear that he is going to take a little time first to figure out exactly how to proceed. The message: Dealing with the mass shootings that have been occurring with alarming regularity is not just about gun control, or law enforcement, or mental health services. It’s about all of the above, and more.

On Sunday night, speaking at an ecumenical prayer service at Newtown High School, Mr. Obama vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent future such tragedies, but did not offer specifics. On Monday, at his daily White House briefing, spokesman Jay Carney also declined to elaborate on what might be under consideration, but his message was “stay tuned,” not “stop asking.”

“It's a complex problem that will require a complex solution,” Mr. Carney said. “No single piece of legislation, no single action will fully address the problem.”

Carney also reinforced the president’s message from Sunday, which is that he intends to engage lawmakers, law-enforcement officials, mental-health professionals, and educators in addressing the issue of gun violence. Obama noted in his remarks that the massacre Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 26 people were killed, was the fourth time as president he has come to comfort a grieving community beset by a mass shooting.

“We’re not doing enough,” Obama said. “And we will have to change.”

Last Friday, Carney reaffirmed that the president still supports renewal of the assault-weapons ban that was in force from 1994 to 2004, but on Monday was not willing to discuss any proposals for a new ban. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, author of the expired assault-weapons ban, said on Sunday that she would introduce new legislation in January, on the first day of the new Congress.

“It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation, and the possession. Not retroactively but prospectively,” Senator Feinstein said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “And it will ban the same for big clips, drums, or strips of more than 10 bullets.”

The weapons reportedly used by Adam Lanza, the alleged Newtown shooter, would not have been banned under Feinstein’s proposal, but the high-capacity magazines that were found at the scene would have. High-capacity magazines allow a shooter to get off many more rounds without reloading than smaller magazines.

Carney also would not respond to a proposal by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut to convene a “national commission on mass violence” to make sure any momentum toward action is “not lost in legislative gridlock.”

Obama already has a lot to think about. There’s the immediate “fiscal cliff” negotiations he is engaging in with House Speaker John Boehner – the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that go into effect on Jan. 1 if Congress doesn’t act. There’s also the larger tax reform and entitlement reform that might spring out of any short-term fiscal cliff deal.  

And then there’s immigration reform, a lingering promise from Obama’s first term on which the fast-growing Latino community is demanding action – and which some Republicans are increasingly interested in pursuing, given their abysmal showing with Latino voters last month.

So one question for Obama is how he spends the political capital he earned by winning reelection. His election victory gave a little boost to his job approval rating, now consistently just over 50 percent. On gun control, an ABC News/Washington Post poll out Monday found that 54 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, a five-year high. Some 59 percent favor a ban on high-capacity magazines.

The poll also seemed to support Obama’s intent to turn his response to the Newtown massacre into a larger focus on violence in America.  

“More than half of Americans say the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., reflect broader problems in society rather than an isolated act of a troubled person – more than after other recent shooting incidents, suggesting the possibility of a new national dialogue on violent crime,” writes ABC pollster Gary Langer.

Obama faces choices. As he has struggled to work with the Republican-controlled House, he has increasingly used executive actions to fulfill some policy goals, such as the temporary halt to deportations of some young illegal immigrants. Before the Newtown shooting, he was using the presidential bully pulpit extensively to promote his position in the fiscal cliff negotiations, traveling outside Washington to make his case for keeping middle-class taxes low but raising them on the wealthy.

Now he has to decide how and when to make his move on the violence issue.

“The big danger is he’s got lots of other stuff on his plate,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “He has to decide what to do about immigration and the rest of the budget process. And a lot of those Republicans are NRA [National Rifle Association] supporters. I imagine he’s thinking about all that right now.”

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