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President Obama's Gun Control Plan 'Extreme?'


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, for years, we've been telling you about the tens of thousands of people who have been killed or kidnapped by the drug cartels in Mexico, but the truth is, nobody really knew how many there were because nobody kept track. This week, the new president of Mexico signed a new law to set up a national registry of victims and to compensate the families. We'll have more on that in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about the new push to address violence, especially gun violence, closer to home. President Obama launched what is expected to be an aggressive effort yesterday. He announced and immediately signed a list of 23 executive actions, coming just over a month after a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut that the president has called the worst single day of his presidency.

The president said his efforts were not to be taken as an attack on gun rights, but a call for responsibility.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

MARTIN: The president also offered proposals that require congressional action and called for Congress to move quickly, which is where our next guests come in. They've been following this. We wanted to get their assessment of the politics. Joining us now, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. Also with us Felicia Sonmez, White House and political reporter for the Washington Post.

Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us once again.


FELICIA SONMEZ: Thanks, Michel. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Lynn, before we get to the politics, just to the substance here. Of those 23 executive actions that the president signed yesterday, which do they consider the most significant?

SWEET: I think the most significant would be any ones that strengthen background checks for any gun buyer. Just so your listeners know, some of the things Obama proposed in the congressional action, they will be so tough to get. So I think of these actions - which, by the way, are not orders. They're just, you know, they're just papers signed to do something. I think anything that encourages states to share information on gun owners helps, because one of the issues is that even if you do a background check, you might not have the information you need to do a thorough job.

MARTIN: And of the actions that the president called on Congress to take, which are the most significant?

SWEET: Well, I think the hardest one - if we could break the categories in that way - would be reinstating an assault weapons ban. The nation had one between 1994 and 2004. It lapsed. There is never way for Congress to pass it again, even though - just think - the first of, let's say, our latest horrible epidemic of mass shootings started in Columbine in 1999, and none of that was enough to get the ban reinstated. That's how tough it is to do that.

So I think that will be tough. There might be more agreement on closing the background check loopholes, including two categories having to do with whether you buy a gun at a show and whether or not you get it through a private purchaser.

Philosophically, it would seem easier because there's no ideological issue anymore on background checks, more or less. I know some people could even counter what I say. Since you have to go through a check at a store, why not just have a check everywhere?

Well, we could devote 20 hours to that, but that is the point - if I'm cutting to the politics - where there might be most agreement. But the issue here is how Congress works, and as you know and your listeners know, you just don't take up each issue as a little bite-sized chunk for an up-and-down vote. Therefore, everything isn't related.

MARTIN: Felicia, you've been covering - you've been getting reaction from members of Congress for the Washington Post. You know, we talked with reporter Paul Barrett yesterday. He's actually in Las Vegas, at what is believed to be the largest gun show in the world, the SHOT show. And he said that, you know, quietly, very quietly, some of the dealers there say that, yes, there seem to - you know, extending background checks, making those universal seems to be logical.

What are the members saying? What are you hearing from members?

SONMEZ: I think, yeah, there are some important distinctions between this current gun debate and let's say the beginning of the last Congress back in January of 2011, when that new Congress was marked by the shooting in Tucson. Back then, after that shooting, one of the responses you saw on Capitol Hill was, you know, very little actual gun legislation being brought forward, but rather members coming together at President Obama's State of the Union address and sitting with members of the opposite party.

This time, again, the president's State of the Union is coming up, and rather than just that kind of show of bipartisanship, you're having some members actually saying - there's about four or five House Democrats urging their colleagues to bring into the chambers someone who has been personally affected by gun violence.

And I think that is sort of an extension of what the president was trying to do yesterday when he brought those four children on stage for his news conference. It wasn't just a matter of let's get this legislation passed. It was more an effort to try to get the public on his side and on the side of gun reform.

So I think, in those respects, you're seeing a little bit of change. But, on the other hand, when you're seeing who actually controls what comes to the floor, as Lynn had mentioned, it's really up to the leaders in each chamber. On the House side, the House Republican Speaker John Boehner has said that he's waiting for the Senate to act on - and see what they can pass.

And over on the Senate side, the Democratic leader over there, Harry Reid, has said he's going to take a backseat on this and let some of his lieutenants like Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California - the author of the original assault weapons ban - take more of a leading role in this.

So I think that doesn't bode particularly well for some kind of comprehensive plan coming forward. I think if there is any action on this at all, it probably will be in a more piecemeal approach, where you're seeing things such as mental health provisions or the universal background checks provisions. Those are definitely areas where you can have a lot more agreement.

MARTIN: We're talking with Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez and Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. We're talking about the new push on gun legislation, or at least a new push on one side. You know, it seems to me that the actions you're talking about seem very nuanced and, at least to my ears, somewhat minimal. But the - how can I put it - the emotion around this issue remains very high.

The NRA, for example, has already launched an aggressive response. Here's a clip from a new ad that the group put forward yesterday, and it focuses on the president's children.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security: protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours.

MARTIN: You know, the White House was outraged about this. On the other hand, some people are criticizing the White House because there were children who came to the press conference that the president held to announce his proposals. Now, he said that these were children who had sent letters to the White House who wanted to be heard on this. And he's getting some criticism around that. So, Felicia, do you want to talk about that for a minute?

SONMEZ: Sure. Yeah, I think what's interesting about those children that the White House brought on stage - as you mentioned, they, of their own accord, wrote to the president asking him to do something about gun violence.

And I thought it was an interesting parallel to back when the president signed the national health care reform law, and he had a young boy on stage, an 11-year-old boy who had become a reform advocate after the death of his uninsured mother. I thought that this action yesterday by Obama was in league with that. It was less a - you know, typically children are used in politics as sort of props, or in general any, you know, regular person who stands to be affected by any kind of agenda item will be brought on stage to sort of help the president or whoever make their case.

In this situation, I think it was interesting that it's a shooting that largely - you know, children were the ones most affected by this.


SONMEZ: And so the White House, from their perspective, thought that it was fair game to bring on stage some children. I think, you know, it's an open question whether or not they're going to be successful in changing public opinion through doing that.

MARTIN: Lynn, during the president's speech, he also made reference to victims of gun violence ranging from mass shooting to kids on street corners in Chicago. Now, obviously, this is a subject that has to be, you know, pretty personal...

SWEET: Huge.

MARTIN: ...for you, as well. I mean...

SWEET: It's a huge issue...

MARTIN: ...coming from Chicago.

SWEET: the city and, in 2012, there were more than 500 murders in the city and one of the - it's just been a chronic problem. It's been very difficult for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to get his arms around it in a way that can reduce the number of murders, so it's certainly - Illinois is interesting - just to use a case that does not really apply to the rest of the nation - in that, even though you have, you know - in the city, the county - you have an overwhelming support for curbs on guns. Been that way for years. Court cases, battles all over the place. You know, there's been an assault weapon bans in the city forever.

You know, but it's still even tough to get the legislature to do anything, even though that's run by Democrats. So, the points in the president's proposal that would seem most useful to Chicago are strengthening background checks and eliminating straw buyers. Those are the two issues, the two solutions that seem most helpful to the city.

MARTIN: Lynn, just briefly - just in the time we have left, I just wanted to ask you to - and I know this is subjective. Just give us the temperature, I mean, because there's the din of what we hear in public appearances in these ads like we just played, but then there's what members say to each other. What do you - do you have a sense that the conversations that they have behind the scenes are any different from the ones that they're having publicly?

SWEET: Well, I think they - members like to reflect their districts and, since we're close in time, I think that's why this is still going to be a very tough battle in Congress and don't expect anything soon.

MARTIN: And, Felicia, very briefly.

SONMEZ: Yeah, absolutely. I think, if you look at the example of New York as, you know, the most prominent recent example of this, if you're going to try to get any gun-related legislation through, you've got to do it quickly and, as the case on Capitol Hill often is, this type of legislation takes time and the more time and space there is, the more leeway there is or the more, I guess, room there is for the opposition to organize itself against these kinds of measures.

So that's - this Congress has shown that it has trouble doing its even basic functions of funding the government and...


SONMEZ: ...things along those lines. Sorry, go ahead.


SWEET: One quick thing. If it - just think, even a member of Congress, Gabby Giffords, was shot in the head and that didn't even spur her colleagues to take action.

MARTIN: Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun Times. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Felicia Sonmez is a political reporter for the Washington Post. She's currently covering the White House. She joined us from the Post's studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

SWEET: Thank you.

SONMEZ: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.