WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is "determined to take action" on gun violence, his vice-president said Wednesday as a high-profile round of White House meetings began in search of new policies after last month's Connecticut school shooting.
Vice-President Joe Biden told reporters that the shooting of 20 children, ages 6 and 7, with a legally purchased, high-powered rifle weighed down the nation's conscience "in a way like nothing I've seen in my career."
While Biden met with victims groups and gun safety organizations ahead of this month's deadline to send proposals to Congress, a contentious debate was emerging on just what gun safety should be.
Obama hopes to announce his administration's next steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21. Meanwhile, a coalition of conservative and gun-rights groups is organizing a "Gun Appreciation Day" to coincide with the weekend of his inauguration, calling on people to visit gun stores, gun ranges and gun shows with U.S. flags and "Hands off my gun" signs.
The United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership among peer countries — 89 civilian-owned firearms for every 100 Americans — and that's one reason why the country suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, a new report said Wednesday. The U.S. is home to about 35 to 50 per cent of the world's civilian-owned firearms, said the report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.
States and communities are trying to come up with their own solutions to gun violence.
The governor of New York, the state with some of the country's strictest gun laws, on Wednesday proposed to close loopholes on a state ban on assault weapons and ammunition clips that carry more than 10 bullets. The outspoken Republican governor of neighbouring New Jersey, Chris Christie, said policymakers also must address the mental health system, improve access to drug treatment and look at the impact of violent video games.
Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head two years ago in a mass attack, is forming a political action committee to counter the existing gun lobby while reaching out to gun owners like herself. And states are exploring ideas ranging from instant background checks for people buying ammunition to one Utah town's proposal to have every household armed.
Biden's meetings this week include one on Thursday with the country's most powerful gun lobbying group, the National Rifle Association, which insisted after the Connecticut shooting that the answer to gun violence was arming more "good guys" and putting an armed security officer in every school.
Participants in Wednesday's meeting included the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. The group's president, Dan Gross, said afterward that the meeting was "very productive and actually inspiring." He said the administration is trying to figure out how to prevent gun deaths, not take guns away from lawful owners.
But as the shock and sorrow begin to fade over the Connecticut attack, some gun rights advocates are already fighting tighter gun restrictions, and the Senate's top Republican has warned it could be spring before Congress begins considering any gun legislation.
"The biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week, pointing to looming debates over the country's borrowing limit and massive deficit.
Obama wants Congress to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, close loopholes that allow gun buyers to avoid background checks and restrict high-capacity magazines. Other recommendations to the Biden group include making gun-trafficking a felony, getting the Justice Department to prosecute people caught lying on gun background-check forms and ordering federal agencies to send data to the National Gun Background Check Database.
Some of those steps could be taken through executive action, without the approval of Congress. White House officials say Obama will not finalize any actions until receiving Biden's recommendations.
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