US President Barack Obama put ending an “epidemic” of gun violence at the top of his second-term agenda on Wednesday, denying he was “on vacation” on the issue before last week’s school massacre.
Obama called for “concrete” proposals within a month from a new task force to be led by US Vice President Joe Biden tasked with examining new gun control laws, better mental health access and the impact of violent culture.
The president said the killings of 20 children and six adults in an elementary school last week should give lawmakers a potent incentive for action, even when the initial shock fades.
Obama said he welcomed public support for measures like the banning of assault weapons, such as the one used by gunman Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut, last week, and also the outlawing of the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips.
He said a majority of Americans also supported background checks for all gun purchases and signaled an effort to expand mental health care, in an effort to deter psychologically troubled people from turning to mass violence.
“We’re going to need to make access to mental health at least as easy as access to a gun. We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that, all too often, glorifies guns and violence,” he said.
Biden has a history of framing crime legislation from his years in the Senate, has an affinity with law enforcement services and also enjoys the kind of cordial links with many top Republicans in US Congress that Obama lacks.
Biden will begin his work today, meeting senior law enforcement leaders from across the US and key Cabinet members at the White House.
Obama, who comforted relatives of Newtown victims on Sunday, bristled when asked by a reporter whether he had been absent on gun control issues, following mass killings in Colorado, Arizona and Texas on his watch.
“I’ve been president of the United States, dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars. I don’t think I’ve been on vacation,” he said.
Obama, who many conservatives believe wants to take away their guns, made clear he supported the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines the right to bear arms in the US.
However, he added: “There is a big chunk of space between what, you know, the Second Amendment means and having no rules at all.”
Obama also called on the National Rifle Association, the US’ most powerful gun lobby group, which piles pressure on lawmakers over gun rights, to consider its priorities before senior figures hold a news conference today.
Despite signs that Republicans, especially those from rural, conservative states may balk at new legislative action, US Representative Catherine McCarthy said the uproar after this massacre was different.
“We are fed up with the lack of courage here in Washington to take a stand, to do something,” she said.