WASHINGTON, December 17 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) As parents began Monday to bury the young victims of last week’s elementary school massacre, US President Barack Obama offered more than words of comfort. He offered words of hope and the promise of action on gun control.
“In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds… in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said, speaking at a memorial service Sunday for the 20 children and six adults who died at the hands of an armed gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday.
The question is, in a country that constitutionally guarantees the right to bear arms, and where gun control is an emotionally charged political quagmire, how much can Obama do on his own?
The call for immediate action echoed on radio talk shows, social media sites and media reports from coast to coast.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken advocate of gun control, called on Obama to make tightening gun restrictions his "number one" agenda.
“I think the president should console the country, but he’s the commander-in-chief as well as the consoler-in-chief,” Bloomberg said on NBC’s “Meet the Press “on Sunday. “It’s time for the president, I think, to stand up and lead and tell this country what we should do.”
“President Obama should issue an executive order TODAY that places immediate, absolute limits on the type and quantity of ammunition that can be purchased at-retail by an individual,” wrote Joyce Cordi, who covers business and government issues for the blog-sharing platform Policymic.
But it’s not that easy.
“The president is fairly restricted in his ability to unilaterally change gun policy in the United States because of existing state and federal law,” said John Hudak, an expert on presidential powers and a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
“There’s not much he can do from the standpoint of executive action,” Hudak said.
Obama – like all US presidents before him – has the authority to use executive orders, a privilege that originated under President George Washington and allows the commander-in-chief to issue a legally binding order to federal agencies.
But there are restrictions on the kind and scope of orders a president can issue.
“He’s supposed to be sure the existing laws are being enforced, but he can’t make new laws,” said Eric Freedman, distinguished professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University Law School, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
“If it’s legal to carry a Saturday night special in a park, then nothing the president can do will make it illegal, but if something is already illegal, then he can choose to enforce it more vigorously,” said Freedman.
The most aggressive actions on gun control – like a ban on assault weapons or large ammunition clips – would require legislation that passes both the US Senate and the House of Representatives before the president signs them into law.
But there are a number of laws related to gun control already on the books that have languished, including limits on the possession of guns by felons and mental patients, and the ability to run data checks on people who apply for weapons permits, said gun control experts.
The president could significantly increase investigations and enforcement that would have an immediate effect, Freedman said. “The president can order the relevant enforcement agencies to ratchet up their priorities and can shuffle funds within those agencies to make it happen.”
“He could have a fairly significant impact because you could get some dangerous people and weapons out of circulation but also because high visibility campaigns have a deterrent effect and would provide political cover for state officials who want more enforcement without the political risk,” Freedman added.
He also said Obama is likely in the coming days and weeks to announce, with some fanfare, enforcement of the existing legislation and push to reinstate the ban on assault weapons that expired under President Bush.
“The odds are that he will consider this fairly low-hanging fruit,” said Freedman.
Experts say Obama is also likely to mandate a broader, national policy on school security measures, and push for more effective coverage of mental health care issues nationwide.
“Through these smaller steps, he can build momentum for bigger change,” said Hudak.
Both men said such changes are likely to come sooner, rather than later.