Created on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 Written by MICHAEL GORMLEY,Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers agreed to pass the toughest gun control law in the nation and the first since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, calling for a tougher assault weapons ban and provisions to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who make threats.
Obama weighing executive action on guns
ERICA WERNER,Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing powerful opposition to sweeping gun regulations, President Barack Obama is weighing 19 steps that could be taken through executive action alone, congressional officials said.
Those steps could include ordering stricter action against people who lie on gun sale background checks, striking limits on federal research into gun use, ordering tougher penalties against gun trafficking, and giving schools flexibility to use grant money to improve safety.
Obama is expected to unveil his proposals as early as Wednesday, barely over a month since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., thrust the gun issue into the national spotlight after years of inaction by Obama and lawmakers.
At the same time Obama is vowing not to back off his support for sweeping gun legislation that would require congressional backing — including banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and instituting universal background checks — despite opposition from the influential gun lobby.
"Will all of them get through this Congress? I don't know," Obama said at a news conference Monday.
"My starting point is not to worry about the politics," he said. "My starting point is to focus on what makes sense, what works."
The president said he would unveil a comprehensive roadmap for curbing gun violence within days. His plan will be based on recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden's gun task force and is expected to include both legislative proposals and steps Obama can implement by himself, using his presidential powers.
White House officials believe moving swiftly on gun proposals at a national level, before the shock over the Newtown shooting fades, gives Obama the best chance to get his proposals through Congress.
Officials said Obama and Biden met Monday afternoon to discuss the vice president's recommendations. Ahead of that meeting, Biden huddled with a dozen House Democrats who have formed their own gun violence task force and whose political muscle will be needed to push legislation through Congress.
Biden told those lawmakers that he and his staff had identified 19 steps Obama could take without help from Congress, according to Jenny Werwa, communications director to Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., one of those present. Biden didn't indicate which of those Obama would adopt.
Among other steps, advocacy groups have been pushing Obama to order the Justice Department to crack down on those who lie on background checks; only a tiny number are now prosecuted. Such a step has support from the National Rifle Association, which has consistently argued that existing laws must be enforced before new ones are considered.
Obama also could take steps ordering federal agencies to make more data on gun crimes available and conduct more research on the issue, something Republican congressional majorities have limited through language in budget bills, advocates said.
The president's proposals are also expected to include steps for improving school safety and mental health care, as well as recommendations for addressing violence in entertainment and video games.
A Democratic lawmaker who met with Biden on Monday said the vice president was likely to have given Obama proposals for allowing schools flexibility in spending federal grant money so they could take steps toward safety, including hiring school resource officers, instituting mental health intervention or making repairs like putting locks on doors. Grants could also go to communities to institute programs to get guns away from people who shouldn't have them, said the lawmaker, adding these were steps the president could take without Congress.
The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposals hadn't been announced publicly.
But the most sweeping and contentious elements — including an assault weapons ban — will require approval from Congress. The NRA has vowed to fight any measure that would limit access to guns and ammunition, a hardline position that could sway some Republicans and conservative Democrats.
The assault weapons ban, which Obama has long supported, is expected to face the toughest road on Capitol Hill. Congress passed a 10-year ban on the high-grade, military-style weapons in 1994, but supporters didn't have the votes to renew it once it expired.
Obama will also need congressional help to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines, like the ones used by the Newtown shooter, and to require background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a gun. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 percent of gun sales happen with no background checks, such as at gun shows and by private sellers over the Internet or through classified ads.
Parents of the slain Connecticut children added their voices to the national dialogue Monday. Members of the newly formed group Sandy Hook Promise called for an open-minded discussion about a range of issues, including guns. And lawmakers in New York state pressed ahead with what would be the nation's first gun control measure approved since the school shootings.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.
"This is a scourge on society," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday night, six days after making gun control a centerpiece of his progressive agenda in his State of the State address. The bipartisan effort was fueled by the Newton tragedy that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators. "At what point do you say, 'No more innocent loss of life'?"
The measure also calls for restrictions on ammunition and the sale of guns. It is expected to pass Tuesday.
"This is not about taking anyone's rights away," said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Bronx Democrat. "It's about a safe society ... today we are setting the mark for the rest of the county to do what's right."
Under current state law, assault weapons are defined by having two "military rifle" features. The proposal would reduce that to one feature and include the popular pistol grip.
Private sales of assault weapons to someone other than an immediate family would be subject to a background check through a dealer. Also Internet sales of assault weapons would be banned, and failing to safely store a weapon could be subject to a misdemeanor charge.
Ammunition magazines would be restricted to seven bullets, from the current 10, and current owners of higher-capacity magazines would have a year to sell them out of state. An owner caught at home with eight or more bullets in a magazine could face a misdemeanor charge.
In another provision, a therapist who believes a mental health patient made a credible threat to use a gun illegally would be required to report it to a mental health director who would have to notify the state. A patient's gun could be taken from him or her.
The legislation also increases sentences for gun crimes including the shooting of a first responder that Cuomo called the "Webster provision." Last month in the western New York town of Webster, two firefighters were killed after responding to a fire set by the shooter, who eventually killed himself.
The measure passed the Senate 43-18 on the strength of support from Democrats, many of whom previously sponsored bills that were once blocked by Republicans. The Democrat-led Assembly gaveled out before midnight and planned to take the issue up at 10 a.m. Tuesday. It is expected to pass easily.
The governor confirmed the proposal, previously worked out in closed session, also would mandate a police registry of assault weapons, grandfathering in assault weapons already in private hands.
It was agreed upon exactly a month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
"It is well-balanced, it protects the Second Amendment," said Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island.
Cuomo said he wanted quick action to avoid a run on assault weapons and ammunition as he tries to address what he estimates is about 1 million assault weapons in New York state.
Republican Sen. Greg Ball called that political opportunism in a rare criticism of the popular and powerful governor seen by his supporters as a possible candidate for president in 2016.
"We haven't saved any lives tonight, except one: the political life of a governor who wants to be president," said Ball who represents part of the Hudson Valley. "We have taken an entire category of firearms that are currently legal that are in the homes of law-abiding, tax paying citizens. ... We are now turning those law-abiding citizens into criminals."
In the gun debate, one concern for New York is its major gun manufacturer upstate.
Remington Arms Co. makes the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that was used in the Connecticut shootings and again on Christmas Eve when the two firefighters were slain in Webster. The two-century-old Remington factory in Ilion in central New York employs 1,000 workers in a Republican Senate district.
The bill would be the first test of the new coalition in control of the Senate, which has long been run by Republicans opposed to gun control measures. The chamber is now in the hands of Republicans and five breakaway Democrats led by Klein, an arrangement expected to result in more progressive legislation.
Former Republican Sen. Michael Balboni said that for legislators from the more conservative upstate region of New York, gun control "has the intensity of the gay marriage issue." In 2011, three of four Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote for same-sex marriage ended up losing their jobs because of their votes.
AP Writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report from Albany.