President Barack Obama is beginning his second term much the way he began his first: with an extraordinary political initiative.
After a bruising battle that cost Democrats in the midterm elections, Obama won passage of his health care bill. “Obamacare” is the law.
Now he is proposing a broad package of measures to curb gun violence, broadly favored by the public after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Here he is likely to emerge with some minor victories but probably none on the major issues of gun control.
Congress would have to approve three of the most critical measures: a ban on assault weapons, semi-automatic rifles that resemble their fully automatic military counterparts; a ban on high-capacity magazines, those that carry more than 10 rounds; and background checks on all gun purchasers, not just those who buy their weapons through licensed dealers.
In Congress, many Democrats and most Republicans have greeted these initiatives with little enthusiasm. The House GOP leadership, knowing its own caucus wants nothing to do with anything that smacks of gun control, has chosen to let the Democratic Senate wade first into that political minefield.
Even there, hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee will take at least another two weeks to get under way. Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont is promising no timetable for reporting out a bill.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said it would be at least three months before the Senate can take up gun legislation, and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada says he is placing a high priority on immigration reforms.
And the entire Congress has more pressing priorities: the debt ceiling, sequestration and renewing a spending bill to run the government that was passed as a temporary measure last fall.
Obama will not emerge empty-handed. He has approved 23 executive orders, authorizing such programs as training in trouble-spotting for school counselors, teachers and mental health professionals, better mental health data collection and prosecution of would-be gun buyers who lie on their background checks.
The president is going against the tide on gun restrictions. With the notable exception of New York state, the trend has been toward fewer rather than more restrictions: easily available concealed-carry permits, the legal ability to carry loaded weapons openly in public places, “stand your ground” laws.
The Newtown school massacre seems to have arrested that tide, if only momentarily.