President Obama vowed on Monday to act decisively to prevent a repeat of the Newtown school shooting, issuing a defiant message to the pro-gun lobby, which he accused of "ginning up fear" among law-abiding gun owners that the federal government would confiscate their weapons.
Exactly a month after the tragedy in which 20 children and six staff were killed at Sandy Hook elementary school, Obama added his voice to a rising chorus of demands across the country for firm action to stem the spate of shooting sprees. The debate over how to protect the nation's children from further massacres has reached fever pitch on the eve of vice-president Joe Biden's formal presentation to Obama of his recommendations for curbing gun violence.
Obama told a White House press conference that he would begin on Monday to review the proposals from Biden, whom he appointed as head of a special gun violence panel in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Asked about a sharp increase in gun sales over the past month, and about widespread opposition to new gun laws among both Republicans in the House and rural Democratic representatives, Obama delivered a stern message to the pro-gun lobby.
"As for people lining up and purchasing more guns, I think we have seen for some time now that those who oppose any commonsense gun control or gun safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government is about to
take all your guns away," he said.
"There is probably an economic element to that. It is obviously good for business. But I think that those of who have looked at this problem have repeatedly said that responsible gun owners, people who have a gun for protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship – they don't have anything to worry about."
The president indicated that the mounting expressions of opposition would not cow him from pressing ahead with his already-stated ambitions to introduce a congressional ban on semi-automatic weapons and a limit on the number of bullets held in high-capacity magazines, as well as a requirement for background checks on all gun buyers.
Bearing in mind the likely difficulty of steering such measures through the House and Senate, Obama said the administration was also actively looking at moves that the president could effect without congressional approval, such as a more effective system for tracking guns that fall into the hands of criminals.
Obama's executive powers were also invoked by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who has been a leading proponent of tougher gun controls. He exhorted Obama to show true leadership through "a stroke of his pen".
Speaking at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg outlined four ways in which the president could immediately make a difference by wielding his executive powers.
The president could order all federal agencies to hand over relevant records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to improve the current situation in which some 52 out of 60 federal agencies were found to provide zero mental health records to the database, thus profoundly impairing its usefulness in preventing guns falling in the hands of mentally ill people.
Obama should make it a priority, Bloomberg said, to increase prosecutions of criminals found to be lying when they undergo federal background checks. In 2010, there were more than 76,000 cases referred by the FBI to the justice department, but only 44 were prosecuted.
"That's is a sad and lethal joke. These are felony cases involving criminals trying to buy guns. It is shameful and it has to end, and the president can do it just by picking up the phone and telling the Justice Department: 'This is your job, go do it,'" he said.
The other two executive orders identified by Bloomberg was the appointing of a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a position that has remained vacant for six years partly due to congressional resistance; and the repeal of the so-called Tiahrt restrictions, which strictly limit public access to information about the movement and trafficking of guns, including a requirement on the FBI to destroy records of all gun background checks within 24 hours.
Despite the potential significance of Obama's executive powers, the fact remains that the most seminal aspects of any attempt to tighten gun laws are likely to be those that require congressional approval. That sets the president on an immediate collision course with the Republican majority of the House, as well as pro-gun Democrats.
"For these politicians, the votes aren't there," said Dr Stephen Halbrook, a legal expert on the second amendment who has presented cases on gun controls before the US supreme court.
It also pits the White House directly against the National Rifle Association, the most powerful pro-gun lobby that is staunchly opposed to almost all of the proposals on the table.
In an attempt to dilute the NRA's influence by widening the debate as far as possible, Biden has spoken to a wide range of organisations over the past week, including law enforcement bodies, gun control groups and leading gun retailers such as Walmart. The NRA and the umbrella group of the gun industry, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, were included in the conversations.
A poll by the independent Pew Research Center shows broad support for some of Obama's gun proposals, with 85% in favour of tightening up a loophole to prevent sales at gun shows unless there are the same background checks as for licensed dealers. About 80% favour laws to prevent people with mental health problems buying guns, according to Pew.
The poll, conducted between January 9 and 13, also found a majority – 67 % – in favour of Obama's plan for a federal database to track gun sales, while 55% supported a ban on assault weapons.
Pew's research suggests strong public support for the National Rifle Association's proposal to post armed guards in schools, with 64% in favour and 32% against.
The NRA was widely derided in parts of the media after making the proposal in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, but it appears that on this issue at least it is closer to the public mood. The poll showed only 40% in favour of teachers and school officials having guns and 57% against.
As they seek to build political momentum for change, Obama and Biden can draw on the support of Newtown itself, where the 14 December tragedy occurred. The town's police chief, Michael Kehoe, joined the chorus for reforms, telling NBC that he backed demands for a ban on military-style assault weapons similar to a federal prohibition that lapsed in 2004.
A new non-profit group comprising local people from Newtown, called Sandy Hook Promise, was also launched on Monday. Its mission is to support moves to prevent further gun tragedies.
"Sandy Hook Promise is committed to making Newtown be remembered as the place where we came together as a community and as a nation and decided we must do everything we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening again," the group said.
In New York, a state which already has some of the most restrictive gun controls in place, a deal was reported to have been thrashed out over the weekend that would see a further tightening of the regulations. The deal would see the size of gun magazines being reduced from the current 10 bullets to just seven, and introduce additional restrictions on ownership of assault weapons.
The measures have been aggressively pushed by Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York state, who wants to see New York act as a role model to other state legislatures across the country.
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