President Obama speaks during his final news conference of his first term. (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Monday that he would unveil a "sensible, common sense" proposal to combat gun violence this week that would include improved background checks, limits on the sale of high-capacity magazines and "an assault weapons ban that is meaningful."
The administration plans to buttress its legislative proposals with executive orders in as many as 19 areas, according to one lawmaker who was present Monday when Vice President Joe Biden briefed House Democrats. The White House declined to confirm that number.
"I'm confident that there are some steps that we can take that don't require legislation and that are within my authority as president," Obama said at a White House news conference. "And where you get a step that has the opportunity to reduce the possibility of gun violence, then I want to go ahead and take it."
The president acknowledged the challenge of pushing sweeping firearms bills through Congress, where the GOP-led House has balked at gun restrictions. "Will all of them get through this Congress? I don't know," he said.
Speaking on the one-month anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead, Obama suggested that lawmakers would have to "examine their own conscience."
"If everybody across party lines was as deeply moved and saddened as I was, then we're going to have to vote based on what we think is best," he said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, said a "clear the table" strategy that makes full use of executive powers would avoid snarls in Congress. "Don't allow a side issue to derail these things. It's going to be perilous enough," Emanuel said.
Emanuel also announced that he would ask Chicago's city pension funds to divest themselves of any investments in companies that make guns and would "lead a charge" to persuade other mayors to do the same.
The prospect of administrative action angered gun rights supporters. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) threatened to file articles of impeachment if the White House pursued such a tack.
But Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) said concerns about administrative overreach were overblown. "You get the sense some people believe that he can change statutes by executive order. You need bills to pass the House and the Senate to change statutes," he said.
Scott and other members of the House Democratic task force on gun violence met with Biden for more than two hours Monday, the final meeting of the White House working group convened in response to the Newtown massacre. Biden discussed his policy recommendations with the president later in the day.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said Biden's effort, in which he and other administration officials consulted about 270 people, represented "the most comprehensive look at guns in a generation."
She said that in addition to dealing with weapons, Biden discussed expanding school safety grants and directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun safety.
The latter proposal has been a priority for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. On Monday, the advocacy group released a report highlighting the gun lobby's legislative efforts to stop research on gun violence.
The group also released its second television ad in as many weeks in an effort to build pressure on the White House and Congress to tighten gun laws.
House Republicans announced Monday that they would hold hearings on mental health and gun violence. "Mental illness is a difficult subject and there are no easy answers, but it is important to have an honest discussion out in the open," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.
Two polls released Monday found broad public support for stronger background check laws. A Washington Post-ABC News survey and another by the Pew Research Center found that more than 80% of respondents want federal background checks to be conducted for private gun sales, including sales at gun shows, where they are not currently required.
Much slimmer majorities expressed support for two other policy options mentioned by Obama — banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
David Keene, president of the National Rifle Assn., predicted Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that Congress would not pass an assault weapons ban or restrictions on high-capacity magazines. "The NRA doesn't have the power, but those Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment do," he said.
Some new gun initiatives also cropped up on the state level.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley outlined proposals that would include banning "military assault weapons," limiting the size of magazines, instituting "common sense" licensing requirements, and improving mental health services and school safety. Among the licensing requirements would be mandatory fingerprinting, background checks and gun safety training, with exceptions for the purchase of rifles and shotguns.
The vice president's son, Delaware Atty. Gen. Beau Biden, joined his state's governor in announcing a slate of gun measures, including a requirement for background checks for sales at gun shows and curbs on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.
In an interview with CNN, the younger Biden said of his father: "He's listened to everyone that has a stake in this and is doing his best to come up with a comprehensive strategy."
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.