Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that President Barack Obama could act on gun violence through executive action — meaning the approval of Congress would not be required.
The U.S. vice president was confronting perhaps his toughest meeting on gun violence policies Thursday as he prepared to meet with the country's top gun lobby, which already has fiercely opposed any suggestion of new gun controls.
That has unnerved some gun owners, who stand by the constitutional right to bear arms and fear their guns will be taken away. In Colorado, whose high-profile shootings include the Columbine school massacre and last year's theater attack, about 100 protesters on Wednesday demanded that lawmakers reject gun control measures.
But one outspoken advocate for tighter restrictions, New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, shouted on Wednesday, "No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer. End the madness now!"
Cuomo's fiery policy speech called for tougher bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines of ammunition in a strengthening of the state's gun control laws, which already are some of the most restrictive in the country.
Obama hopes to announce his administration's own steps to tackle gun violence shortly after he is sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21. The gun issue has rocketed into the top tier of his concerns for his second term after last month's school shooting in Connecticut, where a young gunman used a high-powered rifle legally purchased by his mother to shoot dead 20 children 6 and 7 years old.
Tackling gun violence won't be easy in a country that is home to about 35 to 50 percent of the world's civilian-owned firearms. The NRA has blocked gun-control efforts in the past and is opposing any new ones, instead saying after the Connecticut shooting that more guns should be given to the "good guys" and an armed security officer should be in every school.
Former President Bill Clinton added his voice on Wednesday, calling the availability of high-capacity gun magazines "nuts."
Biden on Thursday was also meeting with sportsmen, wildlife interest groups, retailers such as Wal-Mart and people from the entertainment industry, as some officials insist that an approach to gun violence should take into account mental illness and violent media as well.
Obama supports steps including reinstating a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and closing loopholes that allow many gun buyers to avoid background checks.
Biden, who met with representatives of victims groups and gun safety organizations Wednesday, acknowledged that any approach will have to flexible.
"I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing," Biden said. "It's critically important we act."
NRA officials didn't return messages for comment Wednesday, but the group's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has dismissed the assault weapons ban as "a phony piece of legislation."
Recommendations to the Biden group include making gun trafficking a felony, getting the Justice Department to prosecute people caught lying on gun background check forms and ordering federal agencies to send data to the National Gun Background Check Database.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, founded after President Ronald Reagan's press secretary was shot in the head in an attempt to assassinate the president, says that some 40 percent of gun sales are made without background checks, such as at gun shows and over the Internet.
Obama had remained largely silent on gun control during his first term despite a series of mass attacks, including one in 2011 where then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. Giffords, a gun owner herself, launched a national political action committee this week to raise money to support candidates and counter the lobbying efforts of the NRA and similar pro-gun groups that actively go after politicians who defy the groups' stance on guns.
The Connecticut shootings appeared to shake up a political system that has tried to sidestep the sensitive issue of guns.
"Every once in a while, there's something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did it in a way like nothing I've seen in my career," Biden said Wednesday.