The big-ticket items in President Obama’s push for action on gun control will require the approval of Congress, but many of the 23 executive moves he announced Wednesday could have been taken at any time in his first term — a point that nettles those who have been advocating for stricter measures.
“It’s a disgrace that it hasn’t been done until now,” said Richard E. Gardiner, a lawyer based in Northern Virginia. “I didn’t see anything in here that they couldn’t already have been doing and in fact that the pro-gun people have been encouraging for years.”
Mr. Gardiner cited specifically improving disclosure of criminal and mental health records — an area where the National Rifle Association, the nation’s most powerful gun lobby, had been spending its own money to help states seeking to update their records.
Activists have been calling for years for Mr. Obama to force federal agencies to send more data to the instant background check system, and he could at any time have ordered all of the reviews he called for at Wednesday’s news event.
After last month’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Obama gave Vice President Joseph R. Biden the job of coming up with ways to try to prevent more rampages.
The administration defended its timeline by saying officials needed the time and careful study Mr. Biden gave the issue before they could decide what actions to take.
“It’s not as though we had a policy paper sitting on the shelf waiting somewhere,” said a senior administration official, speaking on background during a conference call briefing before the proposals were unveiled. “We met with a lot of groups and we learned a lot of ideas that came as a result of this process, so we’ve tried to be as comprehensive as possible.”
Sandy Hook was the latest in a series of shootings on Mr. Obama’s watch, including last summer’s rampage at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo.
But those on both sides of the debate acknowledge that the Connecticut shooting, which left 20 first-graders and a half-dozen school officials dead, gave Mr. Obama a political opening.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, said Mr. Obama this week seemed to downplay the Colorado movie theater shooting, which happened in the midst of the presidential campaign. Mr. King said it made him wonder how committed Mr. Obama is to the issue.
“The fact that it was not even mentioned during the campaign, or hardly mentioned, shows that this is not a selling political issue. It really isn’t,” he told CNN. “I wonder how serious he really is. I’m not questioning his motives, but he never mentioned it during the campaign. And now he knows that for the next two months all we’re going to be talking about is the debt ceiling, sequestration, the continuing resolution, you know, the ending of the fiscal year, all of these.”
The 23 actions Mr. Obama laid out on Wednesday included providing incentives for states to share information with the national background-check system, hiring school resource officers and addressing unnecessary legal barriers that may be preventing states from providing information to the federal background system.
Mr. Biden, who led the task force on gun violence that crafted recommendations for Mr. Obama and met with more than 220 groups, acknowledged Thursday that mental health privacy issues are inherently sensitive — and not necessarily for the usual suspects.
He said pro-gun advocates are more inclined to support disclosure, while the “anti-gun guys” are more reluctant, citing privacy issues. But he said the time has come to take action.
“We have to look at it,” he said. “We have to address it.”
Though the administration has followed through on crafting a plan just one month after Newtown, some of Mr. Obama’s executive actions face procedural hurdles.
For example, he is nominating B. Todd Jones, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to be the bureau’s permanent director — a position Mr. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, couldn’t fill. A reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act in 2006 changed the position from a presidential appointment to one confirmed by the Senate, and concerns with nominees’ views on guns have helped derail their prospects ever since.
In April 2011, the ATF announced plans to direct Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas to report any multiple purchases of certain types of long guns. The move prompted almost immediate litigation from the National Rifle Association and the National Sports Shooting Foundation, along with attempts from Congress to defund the reporting program in the midst of the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious gun-running scandal.
“And they probably don’t want to push anything more at the moment, because that means they’ll have to fight off congressional efforts to unfund it,” Mr. Gardiner said. “So the administration would have to fight that off, and they probably didn’t want to pick any more fights than they absolutely have to.”
Another of Mr. Obama’s directives orders the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence. Congress earlier passed legislation that forbids federal funding for research that “advocates or promotes gun control.”
White House attorneys signed off on the proposal, but Mr. Gardiner said issues could be raised with language, depending on what the studies entail.
“‘Causes,’ maybe, ‘prevention,’ a little shakier,” he said. “They probably can’t deal with so-called ‘prevention.’”
But with litigation ensnaring Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul, his signature domestic achievement, and the coming U.S. Supreme Court battle over same-sex marriage, the White House is unlikely to be interested in picking more legal fights over any hot-button issues in the near future. FreedomWatch, a conservative group founded by lawyer Larry Klayman, has filed suit in federal court in Florida this week over Mr. Biden’s task force, alleging that the group did not give sufficient notice for its meetings.
Neither the White House nor the Department of Justice responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit Thursday.