Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Wednesday floated the possibility that President Obama will take unilateral action to impose gun control in the wake of the last month’s Connecticut school shooting.
Meeting with gun-safety advocates and victims’ families at the White House, Mr. Biden said the administration is determined to take steps to tighten gun rules, even if that means having to work around Congress, which has blocked big gun-control bills for more than a decade.
“The president is going to act,” vowed Mr. Biden, whom Mr. Obama tapped to head the task force on the issue. “There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet. But we’re compiling it all with the help [of] the attorney general and all the rest of the Cabinet members as well as legislative action we believe is required.”
But talk of unilateral White House action — on which the administration declined to elaborate — alarmed gun-rights supporters.
“The Founding Fathers never envisioned executive orders being used to restrict our constitutional rights,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, South Carolina Republican. “We live in a republic, not a dictatorship. The president should not be able to act unilaterally when it comes to our constitutional rights. Executive orders were meant as a way for the president to implement legislatively passed laws, not to make law.”
Mr. Obama has described Dec. 14 — when 26 people, including 20 children, were slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — as “the worst day of my presidency,” and some pro-gun lawmakers are questioning their views as a result.
Mr. Biden said Wednesday that he wanted to make it clear to the American public that the administration is reaching out to all groups, no matter where they fall on the issue. He is scheduled to meet with sportsmen and gun owners groups, including the National Rifle Association, on Thursday.
Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest seller of munitions in the country, reversed course Wednesday and said it also will send a representative. A White House Official said Thursday that Wal-Mart will meet separately with Attorney General Eric Holder along with other retailers, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The NRA has advocated placing armed guards in more schools, and Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, has suggested that the outcome Dec. 14 might have been different if Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who died after lunging at gunman Adam Lanza, had access to a firearm.
Sen. Ron Johnson said Wednesday that he is glad Mr. Biden’s task force is looking at a range of issues — the White House is including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in the process — rather than focusing only on guns.
But Mr. Johnson said the task force should proceed carefully rather than try to push legislation through Congress quickly.
“I’m a little concerned they’re going to try and rush this thing through and pass some piece of legislation out of Washington, D.C., within a month,” the Wisconsin Republican told CNN. “Let’s sit back and listen to what comes out of these White House meetings. I mean, I’ve got a flexible mind. I’m willing to give the vice president and the president the benefit of the doubt.”
Attempts to tighten gun rules or renew the ban on military-style semi-automatic rifles have failed repeatedly in Congress over the past 12 years. But the Obama administration argues that the Sandy Hook shooting must spur action.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Mr. Biden said. “Of all the tragic events we’ve endured, I don’t think anything has touched the heart of the American people so profoundly as seeing those — learning of those young children not only being shot but riddled with bullets. Every once in a while, there’s something that awakens the conscience of the country, and that tragic event did in a way like nothing I’ve seen in my career.”
The vice president said there is “a pretty wide consensus on three or four or five things in the gun safety area” among the groups assembled Wednesday, which included the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and The Violence Policy Center.
For example, Mr. Obama has called for Congress to ban the military-style rifles, nicknamed “assault weapons”; ban high-capacity ammunition clips; tighten background checks for gun purchasers; and confirm a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
All of those likely would take action by Congress.
The White House declined to say what steps Mr. Obama could take on his own.
“I won’t get ahead of the process here, but as the president has said, you know, he’s looking at this broadly, not just in terms of the things that can be done legislatively and not just in terms of the things that can be done through executive action,” press secretary Jay Carney said.
A White House official said Mr. Biden later held two conference calls on the issue — one with 15 governors, about evenly divided between the parties, and the other with 16 local elected officials, mostly mayors and almost all Democrats.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, described the meeting as “very productive and actually inspiring.”
“Words like ‘comprehensive’ and ‘broad’ don’t mean taking guns away from law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Gross said. “This is not a debate around the Second Amendment.”
The shooting has prompted some states to take action on their own.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he would push for what he said would be the country’s toughest assault-weapons ban, and to ban all high-capacity magazines. New York has a state ban on assault rifles, but Mr. Cuomo said it is easily circumvented.
Some gun rights advocates, however, say it’s wrong to use the Sandy Hook shootings to push for more restrictions.
A coalition of conservative and gun rights groups are organizing a Gun Appreciation Day on Jan. 19 — right before Mr. Obama is inaugurated for a second term — as a protest against the president’s pledge to act.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.