Washington – With Congress opposed to even the most modest efforts at gun control, activists are pressing a sympathetic White House to make gun ownership a public health and safety issue, and they’re lobbying the Obama administration to pour money into public information campaigns and gun research.
Some groups contacted did not want to discuss details of their lobbying strategy.
“As you might imagine, those are conversations that we aren’t ready to speak to the media about,” said Erika Soto Lamb, spokeswoman for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group formed and funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are hoping the president will direct the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a public safety campaign about the dangers of gun ownership, much like the agency did about the dangers of smoking. Gun control advocates are also pressing President Obama to spend more money on research about guns and gun ownership.
In last week’s State of the Union message, in his only reference to guns, Obama said, “I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.”
But the president did not say what steps he would take using his authority.
Monte Frank, a board member of the Newtown Action Alliance, said Obama’s options are limited.
“It’s not nearly enough and not what is necessary to reduce gun violence,” Frank said.
But he said he’s glad the president had not dropped the issue, even if there are not enough votes in Congress to pass new gun control laws.
“I’m encouraged that the president remains committed,” he said.
The White House has already issued 25 executive orders related to guns – all prompted by the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
To gun-rights activists, none was more controversial than Obama’s order to the Centers for Disease Control, an HHS agency, to conduct research on guns.
Until the president gave his order, the CDC had been barred from studying guns as a safety issue because members of Congress, backed by the National Rifle Association, had stripped funding from the CDC to do so in 1996.
The NRA and its gun-rights allies targeted the CDC because every one of the scores of CDC-funded firearms studies conducted before the ban had reached conclusions that favored stricter gun control.
Regarding gun-activists’ latest White House initiative, the NRA, in an emailed statement Monday, said:
“The American people have repeatedly rejected gun control schemes proposed by President Obama. So, it is not surprising he continues to look for ways to circumvent the will of the people and implement his agenda unilaterally,” according to NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen.
“This administration’s attempt to label law-abiding gun owners as public health risks is offensive. The NRA will fight this and every other misguided attempt to undermine law-abiding gun owners in this country.”
Ironically, the study Obama ordered from the CDC, released last summer, was hailed as propping up both gun rights and gun-control positions.
The CDC report said that in 2010, more than 105,000 people were injured or killed in the United States the result of a firearm-related incident. But it also said a firearm death was far more likely to be a suicide than a homicide, provoking gun rights activist to say the issue of gun safety is largely a mental health problem.
The report also said there is not enough research to determine if certain gun control measures and gun safety campaign are effective or if “conceal and carry” laws contribute to gun violence.
But the CDC also said its study was hampered by a lack of information about who owns a gun in the United States and what type of guns are most popular – information the gun lobby has successfully fought to keep out of the hands of the federal government.
“The lack of comprehensive datasets and the wide variety of sources and the fact that the data lead to contradictory conclusions call into question the reliability and validity of gun-violence data,” the CDC concluded.
Some gun control advocates, including the National Physicians Alliance, have long pressed for more action by the HHS – an agency with authority over a broad number of programs, from health care to Head Start. The National Physicians Alliance has urged HHS to remove restrictions that prevent doctors from asking their patients about gun use.
In a study released in September, the NPA also recommended that the HHS “build an evidence-based approach to gun violence prevention, which includes restoration of robust funding and training for epidemiological research in this area (through the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and gathering data that tracks gun-related deaths and injuries, safety interventions, and the impact of measures to reduce the incidence of gun violence over time.”
But Michael Bazinet, spokesman for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, said there is no need for the HHS to launch a public safety campaign because the industry already does so, a campaign that includes the donations of gun locks.
“We can’t meet demand,” he said.
Bazinet said the real source of gun violence is urban gangs and the drug trade. He said he would like to see the Justice Department — not HHS — become more involved in studying such violence.
“If we concentrate on criminals using guns, I would hope we would have better knowledge about gun violence in society,” Bazinet said.
Even as gun control activists press the White House for more action, they say they haven’t given up on Congress.
Brian Malte, senior policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said advocates will push to get another vote in the Senate on legislation that would broaden FBI background checks of gun buyers. That bill failed last year to get the 60 votes it needed to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate. Supporters were five votes short, and it’s doubtful they would be able to win them in an election year that features several Democrats running tough races in states that favor gun rights.
Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the House are preventing consideration of any gun control measure.
That did not keep Rep. Elizabeth Esty, whose 5th Congressional District includes Newtown, and a small group of fellow House Democrats from introducing a nonbinding “sense of the House” gun control resolution the day after the State of the Union address.
“Gun violence is a public health issue and Congress should enact by the end of the 113th Congress comprehensive federal legislation that protects the Second Amendment and keeps communities safe and healthy, including expanding enforceable background checks for all commercial gun sales, improving the mental health system in the United States, and making gun trafficking and straw purchasing a Federal crime,” the resolution said.