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Public Pressure, Background Checks Central To Obama Gun Control Strategy

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Gun control historically has been one of the most divisive issues in Congress, between the parties and even inside the Democratic coalition. Yet some in President Obama's own party say he has put together a gun agenda that is sweeping without being too painful for most Democrats to support.

"He did the right thing when he laid out his principles. It was not a crazy wish list," says Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist Democrat group Third Way. "It didn't include a lot of things that gun rights supporters find anathema. You know, it didn't include licensing and registration. It didn't include one-gun-a-month limits. It didn't include waiting periods. It was a very measured package that was moderate."

On Tuesday, Obama is expected to discuss specifics of his gun control agenda during his State of the Union address, perhaps building on his legislative priorities.

Unlike former President Bill Clinton, who asked Democrats to walk the plank in the 1990s to pass an assault weapons ban, Obama has laid out a menu of proposed changes, including universal background checks, limits on big ammunition clips and an assault weapons ban.

"What he did is, he left it to the Senate to really work out the details," Kessler says. "And, you know, the president's playing the outside game and playing it pretty well."

On Monday, Obama was in Minneapolis, surrounded by uniformed law enforcement officials: "I need everybody who's listening to keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing," he told the crowd.

Obama was doing what his aides say he didn't do often enough in his first term — getting outside of Washington to build public support for legislation.

The president also had to convince gun control advocates that his newfound zeal for gun restrictions isn't just lip service. After all, in his first year in office, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave the president an "F" for a "lack of leadership for common-sense gun laws."

The past few weeks have changed all that, says Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center.

"It's a complete sea change," she says. "Obviously, the tragedy at Newtown had a huge personal impact on him, and everyone in the gun violence prevention community was very open about being disappointed with him in the first term. But we're seeing a very serious, dedicated focus on identifying and passing effective gun violence prevention measures. So it's too bad we lost a term, but I think we're going to [hopefully] make up for it in the second term."

Focus On Background Checks

The gun control lobby has adjusted its sights as well. Groups like the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates against gun violence, support much more ambitious restrictions.

But now, Rand says, they would define a victory for the president as "anything that works to reduce gun death and injury."

Gun control advocates seem to be settling on one measure as their top priority — background checks. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, aired an ad during the Super Bowl advocating background checks.

The ad, which ran in the Washington, D.C., television market, displayed video footage of National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre supporting background checks in May 1999. But LaPierre and the NRA now oppose background checks.

"There's going to be fees. There's going to be paperwork," LaPierre said last week on Fox News Sunday last week. "There's going to be law-abiding people caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare, and there's going to be abuse in terms of prosecutions. And it's all going to affect only the law-abiding people. The criminals could care less."

Mayors Against Illegal Guns knows the NRA has shifted course, and that's why it is highlighting the issue. Background checks get more than 90 percent approval in some public opinion polls, and may have the greatest chance of passing Congress.

Of course, the popular measure that's easy to pass isn't always the one that solves the problem. But in this case, the low-hanging fruit may be more important.

"If universal background checks pass, that is the gold medal in preventing gun violence and gun crime in the country," says Kessler, who calls the checks more important than a ban on assault weapons, even though the latter are associated with the most horrific crimes.

Background checks would make a bigger difference because the vast majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns, Kessler says. And in 9 out of 10 gun crimes, the killer is not the original purchaser of the gun.

"So you put those two facts together, and what you have is evidence of massive gun trafficking that goes on in the United States that funnels guns from the legal market to the shadows market," Kessler says.

"The lubricant that allows that gun to go to the illegal market is the private sale, which under federal law is not covered, which can be done without a background check."

Background check and gun trafficking bills have Democratic and Republican supporters in both the House and Senate. And this week the idea of improved background checks got an important and unexpected endorsement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, the first member of the Republican leadership in either chamber to show movement on the issue.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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