Obama Keeping A Low Profile On Possible Gun Control Legislation

At the Newtown, Conn., memorial service on Sunday, President Obama spoke about a need to take action to protect America's children from gun violence. Since then, the White House has been decidedly quiet about his intentions, but behind the scenes, the administration has set several things in motion. Scott Horsley looks at options President Obama is considering and the politics of his personal stake.

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Over the weekend, President Obama delivered a passionate plea to prevent gun violence, saying we haven't done enough as a country to keep our children safe. The president promised to use all the powers of his office to address the issue in the coming weeks. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the president's next steps.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama spent Sunday afternoon meeting with families who lost loved ones in the Newtown massacre. But when he spoke that night, at a memorial service in the town's high school, his words were meant for the whole country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?

HORSLEY: The politics may be shifting. A CBS News poll over the weekend found 57 percent of Americans think gun control laws should be strengthened, up from just 39 percent last spring. The killings in Newtown seemed to have changed public attitudes in a way earlier mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Tucson, Arizona, did not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Today is the day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today is the day.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Today is the day.

HORSLEY: Within hours of Friday's shooting, demonstrators gathered outside the White House demanding federal action. Preschool teacher Barbara Elsas was optimistic the Newtown killings would give Mr. Obama new resolve.

BARBARA ELSAS: And hopefully, the president of our country, who has children of his own, will do something about this and not be afraid of the NRA.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's Sunday speech seemed to deliver on that expectation, as the president sounded determined to seize this opportunity. But political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the change the president called for will take more than one speech.

JACK PITNEY: This is something he needs to talk about, and talk about frequently in the months ahead, if he wants to pass new legislation on gun control. Right now, people are paying a lot of attention to it. Parents all across the country are feeling very emotional about this. But over time, issues change and feelings change.

HORSLEY: Democratic lawmakers are showing new willingness to take up the gun issue. The president spoke by telephone today with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a loyal NRA member who nevertheless says he's willing to consider new gun laws along with other measures. A White House spokesman says the president also supports California Senator Dianne Feinstein's push to renew the ban on assault weapons. But for now, Mr. Obama is keeping a low profile. Pitney says that may be deliberate.

PITNEY: On the one hand, he may feel pressure to speak out on the issue. On the other hand, the more he speaks out, the greater the risk is that members of the other party will get their backs up and not listen.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama did meet privately yesterday with Vice President Biden, the attorney general and the secretaries of health and education to ask for their ideas about combating gun violence. It's not the first time. Two years ago, after the Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Mr. Obama's Justice Department looked for what the president called common sense ways to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

Chris Schroeder, who led that effort, says a wide variety of people were consulted, including police, safety advocates and gun shop owners.

CHRIS SCHROEDER: All the people that we talked to had very positive reactions to the idea of, well, let's make the background check system as effective as it can be.

HORSLEY: The administration has taken some steps to improve background checks. Others would require an act of Congress, such as addressing the 40 percent of gun sales that aren't subject to background checks.

Schroeder, who left the Justice Department last month and now teaches at Duke Law School, says his own recommendation would be to outlaw high-capacity magazines.

SCHROEDER: Those are the instruments that turn a long gun or even a pistol into a shooting machine that enable people to get off the high volume of rounds in a closed environment like the school at Newtown.

HORSLEY: Schroeder acknowledged with so many assault weapons and magazines already on the streets, it could take years to make a difference.

SCHROEDER: I think the goal ought to be to try to put a dent in the problem and not give up just because you can't solve it all.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama seems to agree. While no single law can stop gun violence, he said Sunday, that can't be an excuse for inaction. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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