US President Barack Obama was under intensifying pressure on Sunday night to take the lead in a campaign for greater gun control following the deadliest primary school massacre in US history.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and leading US senators are pressing Obama to tell the US Congress to reinstate a ban on assault weapons which are common to almost all recent mass shootings in the US, including Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut in which 20 children, aged six and seven, and seven adults were killed.
Bloomberg praised the president for his tearful reaction to the deaths, but called on Obama, who has faced accusations of political cowardice over his failure to tackle gun control following other massacres, to make the issue a priority.
“It’s time for the president to stand up and lead and tell the country what we should do. Not go to Congress and say: What do you guys want to do? This should be his No. 1 agenda. He’s the president of the United States and if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns. That’s roughly the number of Americans killed during the whole Vietnam war,” Bloomberg said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
The mayor called for a renewal of the assault weapons ban that then-US president Bill Clinton pushed through Congress in 1994, which also included restrictions on the size of bullet magazines.
The administration of former US President Bush allowed it to lapse a decade later. Police say that the Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, used a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns.
“I don’t think the founding fathers had the idea that every man, woman and child could carry an assault weapon,” Bloomberg said. “I think the president through his leadership could get a bill like that through Congress, but at least he’s got to try.”
US Senator Dianne Feinstein, an influential Democrat, said she intends to introduce legislation to reinstate the assault weapons ban on the first day the new Congress sits next month.
“It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession, not retroactively, but prospectively,” she said. “The purpose of this bill is to get ... weapons of war off the streets.”
Feinstein added that she is looking to Obama to make a stand.
“He is going to have a bill to lead on,” she said.
The White House on Sunday said the president supports reinstatement of a federal ban on assault weapons — a commitment he made during his 2008 election campaign, but has not pushed since.
Gun control advocates also say Obama has shied away from using the powers he has to restrict the import of semi-automatic weapons and magazines that hold large numbers of bullets.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general for 20 years, backed Feinstein.
“I’m hearing from the community, as well as my colleagues in law enforcement, we need to do something. And I’m hearing from my colleagues in the Senate around the country, some in states like Wisconsin and Colorado, where there have been similar horrific, horrible tragedies, maybe not involving children with this kind of incomprehensible kind of circumstance, but we need to do something, at the very least, perhaps, about the high-capacity magazines that were used in this crime,” he said. “I intend to talk about it on the floor of the United States Senate perhaps as early as this week.”
The debate has also widened to include questions about the treatment of mentally ill people, another factor common to most recent mass killings in the US. Joe Lieberman, another Connecticut senator, called for a national commission to examine the US’ gun laws and mental health system as well as the role violent video games and movies have in mass shootings.
“We’ve got to hear the screams of these kids and see their blood to keep this from happening again,” he said.
Pro-gun rights politicians have gone to ground. NBC’s Meet the Press said it invited the 31 senators, Republican and Democrat, who openly oppose stricter gun control laws to appear on the program with Bloomberg and Feinstein. None accepted.
The National Rifle Association, the largest and most influential of the gun rights lobby groups, has been similarly silent since the massacre, but others in the movement are pushing back.
Gun Owners of America blamed legislators who support gun control for the Newtown massacre.
“Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands,” director Larry Pratt said. “Federal and state laws combined to insure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones.”
Before the Newtown shooting, the momentum was with the gun lobby. Last week, Michigan passed a law permitting gun owners to carry concealed weapons in schools.
The calls for tougher legislation are a direct challenge to Obama whom critics accuse of kowtowing to the gun lobby.
Since coming to power he has signed laws allowing people to carry guns in national parks and failed to use his existing powers to block the import of semi-automatic weapons and clips that hold large numbers of bullets.
The president was also silent when the US Supreme Court struck down state and local restrictions on gun ownership, and when some southern states passed laws permitting guns in bars and churches.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after former White House press secretary James Brady, who was badly wounded during an assassination attempt against then-president Ronald Reagan, gave Obama an “F” grade on gun control.
In a report called Failed Leadership, Lost Lives on the president’s gun policy after a year in office, the Brady campaign accused the president of giving in to the “guns anywhere mentality of the gun lobby.”
It said he “muzzled Cabinet members who expressed support for stronger gun laws.”
“His White House staff removed statements from the White House Web site that declared support for gun violence prevention laws,” the report said.