WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama chided the gun lobby on Monday for “ginning up fear” about gun control, suggesting groups like the National Rifle Association are financially motivated to spur Americans into buying more firearms following mass shootings.
“Those who oppose any common-sense gun control or gun safety measures have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that the federal government is about to take all your guns away,” Obama told a news conference at the White House. “There’s probably an economic aspect to that. It’s obviously good for business.”
He added: “Part of the challenge we confront is that even the slightest hint of some sensible, responsible legislation in this area fans this notion that somehow, here it comes, everybody’s guns are going to be taken away.”
Obama’s comments were a decided jab at the NRA, the powerful lobby group that has long insisted it merely advocates for the Second Amendment rights of average American citizens. But in recent years there have been increasing allegations that the NRA receives major funding from gun manufacturers.
The Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, has estimated that since 2005, gun manufacturers have contributed up to U$38.9 million to the NRA. The NRA doesn’t disclose donor information although it spends millions on federal elections.
Gun control has been in the spotlight in the U.S. capital ever since the horrific mass shooting at a small-town Connecticut elementary school last month by a troubled young man toting his well-heeled mother’s high-powered assault rifle.
Twenty-seven people died in the carnage, including the perpetrator; 20 of the victims were just six and seven years old. Polls suggest the majority of Americans now support beefed-up gun control in the dreadful aftermath of the Connecticut shooting.
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday, more than half of all respondents — 52 per cent — said the carnage in Newtown, Conn., has made them more supportive of gun control. Only five per cent of those surveyed said they’re now less likely to back tougher gun control laws.
Fifty-eight per cent also said they back a ban on assault weapons. Almost 70 per cent of Republican respondents told pollsters they support background checks on anyone buying a firearm.
Amid this dramatic turnaround in public opinion, Obama enlisted Joe Biden to head a task force to come up with proposals to combat gun violence.
The vice-president met last week with gun control advocates, the NRA and victims of gun violence, among other stakeholders; his gun control proposals are scheduled to be on the president’s desk on Tuesday. Biden has also been speaking regularly to the families of the Connecticut victims in conversations that often stretch on for more than 45 minutes, the White House said Monday.
Obama told the news conference he’d have specifics on the administration’s gun control intentions by the end of the week. And while Obama insisted he’d push strong for stronger gun control laws in the weeks to come, including by way of executive order, he also assured those Americans who treasure their firearms that they have nothing to fear.
“Those of us who look at this problem have repeatedly said that responsible gun owners — they don’t have anything to worry about,” he said.
Gun control is a uniquely American debate with an estimated 300 million guns in the U.S. and at least one firearm in about 45 per cent of the nation’s households.
Americans have a historic affection for firearms stemming from a long-held distrust of government. Early settlers were pioneers and revolutionary rebels, and guns are therefore considered central to the American identity, particularly in the south and the West.
But gun control advocates insist that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the “well-regulated” right to bear arms, has been distorted by gun enthusiasts to a degree never intended by the country’s Founding Fathers.
Obama said Monday he wanted stronger background checks on those buying guns, limits on the availability of high-capacity ammunition magazines and some restrictions on assault weapons — all relatively modest proposals.
But he’s facing the daunting roadblock that is the U.S. Congress, in particular the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Even in the Democratic-controlled Senate, there are trouble spots — a slate of Democratic senators in traditionally Republican states are up for re-election in 2014, and there’s no guarantee they’ll vote in favour of tougher gun control laws with the powerful, deep-pocketed NRA lurking in the shadows.
As the 113th Congress settles in, some Democratic senators plan to introduce a bill soon that would ban assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines.
But John McCain, the Republican senator who receives more funding from gun rights groups than any other U.S. politician, responded with an unwavering “no” when asked over the weekend whether Congress would pass such a ban.
An NRA official also said Sunday that there’s little hope tougher gun control measures will make it through Congress. Instead, the organization says it’s pushing for measures that would prevent the mentally ill from acquiring guns.
A 2012 survey of NRA members suggested a large majority of them were far more open to stricter gun control measures than the organization’s leadership, which remains dead set against reform. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped the NRA from gaining 100,000 new members since last month’s shooting.
“We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen,” the NRA said in a statement at the end of its 90-minute meeting last week with Biden.
The president, meantime, urged lawmakers to weigh the moral issues as they ponder how to vote on gun control in the months to come.
“My starting point is not to worry about the politics,” Obama said. “My starting point is to focus on what makes sense … Members of Congress are going to have to have a debate and examine their own conscience.”