President Barack Obama is considering the use of an executive order to restrict access to guns or ammunition in the wake of nationwide revulsion in the US over the Connecticut school shootings, vice-president Joe Biden said Wednesday.
Such a move would be deeply controversial in the gun lobby, but Biden said the president was determined to explore every legislative avenue.
"The president is going to act," Biden said in a briefing to reporters before the inaugural meeting of a new national task force on gun control. "Executive order, executive action that can be taken; we haven't decided what that is yet. But we're compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and all the rest of the cabinet members as well as legislative action, we believe, is required."
Biden did not specify what kind of action the president might take. In the past the Obama administration has used executive orders, which have the force of law, to require gun dealers to report when customers buy multiple high-powered rifles and to increase penalties for violating gun laws. A new order, nearly certain to face legal challenges, could seek to tighten enforcement of laws governing private sales of guns or to beef up background checks.
"We are not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything we're going to do nothing," Biden said. "It's critically important that we act."
Any unilateral action by the president seemed sure to inflame gun advocates, who argue that gun sales are protected under the second amendment and who equate gun control with tyranny. Gun-rights groups are organising a "Gun Appreciation Day" on the weekend of the president's second inauguration. The influential conservative website the Drudge Report illustrated the story covering Biden's remarks with pictures of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
Biden said that the 14 December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, in which 20 first-graders were shot dead in their classrooms by a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle, had mobilised the nation to act.
"Every once in a while there's something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I've seen in my career," Biden said.
The national taskforce includes the victims of mass shootings and gun control advocates. The group plans to meet Thursday with representatives of the National Rifle Association and gun retailers including Walmart. The taskforce was to deliver recommendations to the president as early as mid-month.
New York could become the first state to pass gun control laws after the Connecticut massacre, aides to Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in advance of his annual address planned for Wednesday afternoon. Lawmakers in Albany worked late into the night Tuesday to settle on new rules to further restrict the sales of assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, and to require the regular renewal of gun permits, among other measures.
The NRA has vocally opposed calls for new gun control legislation, saying that more guns are needed to improve public safety.
"If it's crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy," NRA head Wayne LaPierre said a week after the Connecticut shooting. "I think the American people think it's crazy not to do it. It's the one thing that would keep people safe."
Deaths from guns are on pace to surpass traffic deaths in the United States by 2015, according to a Bloomberg News study. In 2011, the latest year for which detailed statistics are available, there were 12,664 murders in the US. Of those, 8,583 were caused by firearms, down 3% from a year earlier.
The Biden taskforce is part of new wave of gun control activity across the country. Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in a 2011 massacre in Tucson that killed six, announced on Tuesday the formation of a political action committee to fight the NRA.
"Special interests purporting to represent gun owners but really advancing the interests of an ideological fringe have used big money and influence to cow Congress into submission," she wrote in an editorial with husband Mark Kelly, an astronaut. "Rather than working to find the balance between our rights and the regulation of a dangerous product, these groups have cast simple protections for our communities as existential threats to individual liberties."
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is heading up a campaign called Demand a Plan that has produced dozens of videos in which family members of victims of gun violence call for new gun laws. Advocates have proposed a coalition of mothers against gun violence that would be modeled after Madd, the anti-drunken driving group that succeeded in lowering the legal blood-alcohol content for drivers nationally.
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