(NEW YORK) MintPress – After a very long week of meetings with myriad groups on various sides of the gun control issue, a federal task force is set to present its recommendations to President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
Vice President Joe Biden, who oversees the “Gun Violence Commission,” said the proposals will serve as a beginning. “This doesn’t mean it is the end of the discussion, but the public wants us to act,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Obama called for the task force after last month’s shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 children and six adults.
It has led to what many have called a new debate on the issue, but the administration may be facing the same old obstacles in its push for the reform of gun laws.
On Wednesday, Biden said, “The president is going to act. There are executive orders, there’s executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all with help of the attorney general and all the rest of the cabinet members, as well as legislative we believe as required.”
Analysts say that may be easier said than done. “The president can exercise executive power for one of two reasons,” John Hudak, a Brookings Institution scholar, tells MintPress News. “Either the president has a formal power they can use, or they can use something that is vague in the law that offers discretion to the president.
“And in the case of gun legislation, it is never vague,” he continues. “Congress is always explicit. So it limits what the president has in his quiver for doing this.”
There is also the problem of public perception. “If the president is doing something on his own, he’s likely to further anger the gun rights community. If there is congressional action, that community will be angry but not as much as if the president has done it on its own,” says Hudak.
On Thursday, Biden’s group met with members of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Afterward, the organization issued a statement saying, “We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment.
“While claiming that no policy proposals would be ‘prejudged,’ this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners — honest, taxpaying, hard working Americans,” it continued.
“We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works — and what does not.”
That same Congress has blocked stricter gun control for nearly two decades. And today, with Republicans in control of the House, more than half of all Congress members have an “A” rating from the NRA.
Room for maneuver
That doesn’t mean the White House has no leeway whatsoever. One area in which Obama could act, according to Hudak, is the prosecutorial discretion of the executive branch. “It is nearly absolute; the Supreme Court considers this to be a truly untouchable power of the president,” explains Hudak.
“He can really begin wrapping up prosecutions in the illegal arms market, making sure individuals who are selling guns are doing so by the letter of the law and making sure people are not exploiting the slow investigative process.”
Another area is the regulatory process. “There are likely to be points in current gun legislation where the president can try to stretch the letter of the law,” Hudak says. “He can ask the Justice Department and the DEA to do their best to stretch the power of the executive branch in this area.”
Similarly, Hudak maintains that the vice president should stick with “smaller scale, common sense, passable recommendations.
“He won’t get an assault weapons ban,” asserts Hudak. “But if he talks about trying to restrict high-capacity magazines or impose a really strict registration and background check system for people who purchase guns, they’re more likely to pass in the sense that there will be broader public support, and it will be harder for the NRA to defend the right to have a 50 round magazine.”
In fact, Biden said on Thursday that he sees an emerging consensus around universal background checks for all gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
Thinking outside the box
Biden also referred on Thursday to the little known issue of the federal financing of research into firearms, saying that the task force is exploring “the ability of any agency to do research on the issue of gun violence.”
Mr. Biden was talking about the difficulties that federal agencies, especially the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have in doing any research on violence firearms and its causes.
It began with a conflict between public health scientists and the NRA in the mid-1990s when the CDC was increasing its funding of research into gun-related deaths as a public health issue. That riled up the NRA, which began lobbying Capitol Hill.
Language was eventually inserted into the appropriations bill that finances the C.D.C. that said, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” That provision still stands.
In a letter sent to Biden’s task force, more than 100 academics, led by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, called for the lifting of federal restrictions on firearms research, arguing, “Removal of constraints on research would send an important message to both federal officials and the research community regarding their independence from political and ideological interference in the research process.”
Hudak, who also urges Biden’s task force to deal with the mental health and school security issues, would agree. “It can’t be all about guns or that would be a failure of the task force from the public perspective,” he said. “If it wants success, it has to look like it is addressing broader problems.”