The administration is eyeing unilateral steps on gun control, but analysts said there are few things President Obama can do on his own because gun control is one area where Congress has jealously guarded its power to make the laws.
In many areas, Congress writes broad laws but gives the executive branch wide discretion to write rules and regulations. Not so with guns.
“The problem with gun control is that Congress has been extraordinarily explicit,” said John Hudak, a scholar on executive power at the Brookings Institution. “When gun-control legislation is passed, it is usually very detailed in what Congress intended and it is usually very detailed in the barriers it sets up for the executive branch. That limits presidential authority to use executive power because there is little discretion.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is leading the White House task force on gun control, said this week that Mr. Obama is looking at “executive orders, executive action” that he can take without having to depend on Congress, which has blocked stricter gun control for nearly two decades.
Constitutional analysts and gun specialists said there may be some room for the administration to act alone to tighten the instant background checks by asking states to pony up more data.
But they said anything broader, such as banning types of guns, ammunition or magazines, would have to come from Congress.
Alan Korwin, a gun rights advocate and author of books on gun laws, said Congress has not given the president the power to tighten the laws on his own.
“Nor should, nor can, they. They are not empowered to,” Mr. Korwin said. “In other words, the people have not given Congress the ability to give the president the power that is not spelled out in the Constitution.”
Mr. Korwin, though, added that Congress has shown a willingness to give away its powers on some thorny issues.
The current debate erupted after a shooting rampage killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden met with gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, and said his task force will release its recommendations Tuesday. Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and other stores that sell firearms met with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in the late afternoon Thursday.
Mr. Biden said a consensus is developing around proposals such as banning high-capacity magazines and imposing tighter background checks, though NRA officials accused him of having already made up his mind and using them for a predetermined dog-and-pony show.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the gun lobbying group said. “While claiming that no policy proposal would be ‘prejudged,’ this task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners — honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans.”
In the wake of the shooting, Mr. Obama said he would “use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
Mr. Biden went further this week, meeting with shooting victims and their families and saying, “There are executive orders, executive action, that can be taken.”