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White House eyes 'far broader' gun-control agenda

The scene outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month.
The scene outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month.Associated Press

Just five days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., President Obama launched a new task force, given a mission to develop comprehensive proposals to address gun violence. Vice President Biden is leading the panel, which is set to report later this month on the administration's agenda.

Though we don't yet know exactly what Obama and his team have in mind, the latest trial balloon suggests they're thinking big.

The White House is weighing a far broader and more comprehensive approach to curbing the nation's gun violence than simply reinstating an expired ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, according to multiple people involved in the administration's discussions.

A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors, the sources said.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told the Washington Post he's been involved in the internal discussions and administration officials "are very clearly committed to looking at this issue comprehensively." He added that White House plans are "a deeper exploration than just the assault-weapons ban."

We can evaluate the details of the proposals on their merits once more substantive details are available, but in the meantime, it's hard not to wonder how the administration intends to overcome fierce political opposition.

The concerns are not lost on the White House.

To sell such changes, the White House is developing strategies to work around the National Rifle Association that one source said could include rallying support from Wal-Mart and other gun retailers for measures that would benefit their businesses. White House aides have also been in regular contact with advisers to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), an outspoken gun-control advocate who could emerge as a powerful surrogate for the Obama administration's agenda. [...]

Once Obama's proposals are set, he plans to lead a public-relations offensive to generate popular support.... The White House is also developing strategies to navigate the rocky and emotionally fraught terrain of gun politics once final policy decisions are made. The administration is quietly talking with a diverse array of interest groups, including religious leaders, mental-health professionals and hunters, to build as broad a coalition as possible, those involved in the discussions said.

Part of this strategy appears to be based on the belief that a delayed push would drastically reduce the chances of success.

But there can be little doubt that this will be a very heavy lift in Congress, no matter what measures the task force recommends. The House is still led by an extremely conservative Republican majority; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said yesterday that his focus in the coming months will be demanding steep cuts to public investments, not gun violence; and red-state Democrats will also need convincing -- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said yesterday the White House's gun agenda appears to be "way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about."

Regardless, as the task force continues its work, it's worth noting that there were fears from the left that the president would shift his attention away from gun violence once the immediate shock of Newtown faded. At least for now, that does not appear to be the case.