White House says assault weapons ban just part of solution

Posted Dec. 18, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 18, 2012, at 6:59 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama would support legislation restoring a ban on assault weapons and requiring background checks of buyers at gun shows as steps toward preventing more mass shootings, his spokesman said Tuesday.

Obama also would consider backing restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines like the one used by the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

As part of his vow to pursue solutions to gun violence in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, the president plans to involve a mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and educators in developing a response.

“It’s clear that as a nation we haven’t done enough to address the scourge of gun violence in this country,” Carney said at a briefing. “It’s a complex problem that requires more than one solution.”

The president met Monday with Vice President Joe Biden, senior aides and Cabinet members including Attorney General Eric Holder, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to discuss ways to respond to the shooting. Carney said there was no timetable for any recommendations.

Obama also talked with Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who Monday became one of the first pro-gun rights lawmakers to say that some restrictions on firearms should be discussed in responding to the Connecticut killings.

Other Democratic lawmakers Tuesday pressed for restoring restrictions on certain military-style assault weapons. The law was enacted in 1994 when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. It expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed as Republicans held the presidency and congressional majorities.

One particular area of focus for restrictions is the ammunition capacity of weapons. The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Adam Lanza, 20, used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle with 30-round magazines as his main weapon, Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance said at a Dec. 16 news conference.

“There is only one use for high-capacity magazines and that is to kill a lot of people quickly,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, told reporters Tuesday.

Maine’s delegation is split on the issue of more gun control. U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King and 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree both said Monday, in response to an emailed question from the Bangor Daily News, that they support a change in the law and think now is the time to look at banning high-capacity magazines and assault rifles.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud responded to the question by saying that enforcing existing laws and addressing underlying causes are needed to stop the violence.

The nation’s powerful gun industry lobby, the National Rifle Association, released Tuesday its first statement about the attack.

“The National Rifle Association of America is made up of 4 million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown,” the organization said in a statement.

It said it plans a news conference on Friday after staying silent as a matter of common decency and out of respect for families in Newtown.

“The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again,” the statement said. An NRA spokesman did not immediately respond when asked to elaborate on what the contributions might entail.

In another sign that the debate on firearms may be shifting, the New York-based investment firm Cerberus Capital Management said it would sell gunmaker Freedom Group Inc., which manufactures the Bushmaster AR-15.

Cerberus made its announcement just hours after California Treasurer Bill Lockyer said he’ll propose that the state’s public pension funds, the two largest in the U.S., divest investments in firearm manufacturers that make guns prohibited under state law.

Congressional proposals for tightening access to firearms may be bolstered by policy options from the Justice Department. Obama has vowed to “use whatever power this office holds” to prevent another mass shooting.

Senior Justice Department officials spent much of 2011 drafting recommendations to reduce gun violence. Those options, which have been presented to the agency’s leadership though not the White House, included enhancements to the national background-check database, harsher sentences for people who serve as “straw” buyers of weapons, and increased funding for states that improve their background check submissions, according to two people briefed on the activities.

The latest attack has the potential to shift the national debate in favor of gun control, said Richard Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

“Policy is often made in reaction to perceived disaster,” said Primus, a constitutional law specialist. “This is certainly the sort of thing that can spur change.”

Congressional Democrats also plan hearings in the wake of the mass shooting, the deadliest in the U.S. since the 2007 rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that claimed 33 lives.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., earlier said she’ll introduce legislation in the new Congress convening in January that would reinstate the assault-weapons ban. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he plans to reintroduce his bill banning high-capacity gun magazines, which have been used in several mass shootings, including at the Newtown elementary school.

Efforts to tighten restrictions on firearms after other recent mass shootings have been stymied by opposition from gun- rights group. While Obama has supported the assault-weapons ban, he hasn’t moved to renew it since taking office in 2009.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released Monday found 54 percent of respondents backing new limits on gun rights, with 43 percent opposed. When asked about banning ammunition clips that contain more than 10 bullets, 59 percent supported the idea, while 38 percent opposed it.

In addition, 52 percent backed a ban on semiautomatic handguns, with 44 percent in opposition. The Dec. 14-16 survey of 602 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The Bangor Daily News and Reuters contributed to this report

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