Obama and Biden unveil bold and significant gun control reform proposals

If they can get it through Congress, this would be a ban with teeth.

“If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.” That was the pledge made by Barack Obama on16 December, at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday, he followed through on the promises he made that day. Taking the podium along with Vice-President Joe Biden, he announced sweeping executive orders and crucial legislative proposals designed to ensure that America will no longer have to witness the horror of mass shootings again on such a terrible, relentless, regular basis.

“No one can know for certain if this senseless act could have been prevented,” said Biden, introducing the President, “but we all know we have a moral obligation — a moral obligation — to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again.” It looks as though he meant it.

Then Obama took the stage. Pointing out that more than 900 Americans have been killed by gun violence since Sandy Hook, Obama read from a series of letters from schoolchildren he received in the aftermath, saying: “These are our kids. This is what they’re thinking about. And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for them, and shield them from harm.”

His speech included the signing of 23 executive orders that give sweeping new powers to those working in law enforcement and mental health care; aim to enforce and vastly strengthen the background-check system; and the Attorney General will review the categories of people who aren't allowed guns, review safety standards on gun-safes and locks, provide training for first responders and school officials in how to deal with school shootings, strengthen mental health care's ability to provide the care needed, as well as its ability to flag up cases where it sees danger, and several that aimed to take real steps towards a national dialogue on guns in the US, including mandating research into the causes of violence.

But the biggest announcements today, and they are huge, were the two policy proposals that every parent, every reasonable man, woman and child had been hoping to hear: the introduction of a general background check for anyone purchasing a gun, and a real ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a ban with the teeth required to prevent arms manufacturers from just circumventing it the way they did last time.

The next battle, therefore, will be in Congress. Obama has made it very clear that he is going all-out on this policy, though he warned that it wouldn't be easy. He is right; the battle will be hard-fought. The power of the pro-gun lobby and the NRA over a large swath of congress is incredible — 213 members of the House of Representatives received NRA campaign donations last year — but it is waning.

At each new legislative announcement, the assault weapon ban and the background check, Obama said “the majority of Americans agree with me on this” — a message to congressmen and woman from both sides of the aisle; effectively, saying in the clearest possible terms that he is speaking with the vox populi today: "defy me — and them — at your peril", he seemed to say.

That means that if this legislation ever had a chance of passing, that chance is now. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week shows that more than 50 per cent of those polled said that the Sandy Hook shooting had made them “more supportive” of gun control legislation, while 58 per cent now say they support the reintroduction of the ban on assault weapons. Obama and Biden are betting that, while a majority of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives oppose the ban, they will be reluctant to be seen opposing it in the face of overwhelming national support. The President will have the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, too.

“I have no illusions about what we’re up against or how hard the task is in front of us,” said Biden. “But I also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook. The world has changed, and it’s demanding action.” To a very great extent, it needs to be pointed out, this was Joe Biden's day as much as Obama's — it was he who was given the wide-ranging brief to come up with solutions; in 33 days he took more than 229 meeetings and has been prepping Congress for the coming storm. These proposals were based on his hard work.

Now it is Obama's turn to lead the fight; he must steer Congress into supporting the legislation, and make sure the national momentum is not lost in doing so. The congressional GOP has proved itself cowardly, and likely will dig its heels in, so the President must do everything he can to bully, cajole, persuade and shame them into making this legislation law. From his speech today, it sounds like he's ready.

The full text of his plan is available here (pdf). You can also watch the video of the announcement below:

Biden and Obama during the press conference at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.