Obama Taps Biden to Lead Gun Violence Task Force

Obama Taps Biden to Lead Gun Violence Task Force

By Alexis Simendinger - December 19, 2012

In the wake of the tragic Newtown, Conn., shootings, President Obama on Wednesday launched his administration’s efforts to improve public protections from mass killings and gun violence by appointing Vice President Biden to work with experts to develop policy recommendations by January.

With a silent Biden at his side in the White House briefing room, Obama said the vice president will work with Cabinet agencies and outside groups in an endeavor designed to be swifter than a formal White House commission.

“As I said on Sunday night, there's no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” the president said. “We're going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun. We're going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence. And any actions we must take must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.”

Biden -- accompanied by Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- will meet with national law enforcement leaders Thursday, the White House announced.

Obama set a tight deadline for response because lawmakers are poised to introduce gun control legislation in the next Congress in January. On Wednesday, he urged the Senate to confirm a new director at Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has functioned with temporary leadership for six years because of political pressures from stakeholders.

Obama is by no means unique in turning the safety and well-being of children into a prominent cause. The Reagan administration focused on illegal drugs; President Clinton convened a 1998 White House Conference on School Safety to tackle violence; George W. Bush sought to improve elementary school teaching, end the exploitation of children, and improve literacy; Michelle Obama has raised public awareness about childhood nutrition and obesity.

The president said he plans to discuss new policy proposals tied to the Newtown tragedy in his State of the Union address. He will outline his broader second-term agenda during that speech, to be delivered within weeks of his Jan. 21 inauguration ceremony. A date has not been announced.

On violence and children, Obama said he wants to tackle “real reforms right now,” noting he asked the vice president to lead the effort because Biden, a former senator from Delaware and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, helped write the 1994 crime bill signed by Clinton. That legislation included an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

Biden will be aided by Bruce Reed, his chief of staff and a former domestic policy adviser to Clinton. Reed, who keeps a low profile in the Obama White House, was seated in the briefing room along with spokesman Jay Carney. His experience in Washington tackling the overlapping challenges of gun legislation, education, family dynamics, mental health and community services and resources, and law enforcement spans more than two decades.

Obama has endorsed reinstating the assault weapons ban, and seeks to close the loophole that allows weapons to be sold at gun shows without background checks. Obama also made clear he supports legislative efforts to ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. He is also weighing executive actions he could take without Congress.

But the president said gun legislation is just a part of the necessary actions to try to curb mass killings and reduce the high incidence of murders in America committed with guns.

“Ultimately, if this effort is to succeed, it's going to require the help of the American people,” he said. “It's going to require all of you. If we're going to change things, it's going to take a wave of Americans, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals and, yes, gun owners standing up and saying ‘enough’ on behalf of our kids.”

During his remarks, Obama said the shock of the murders in Connecticut had influenced public thinking, as evidenced by the latest polls. The president wants to move swiftly on a set of proposals in order to tap the heightened public pressure for remedies. It will be a challenge, considering the competition for America’s attention at the start of 2013 and a Washington political climate focused on reducing spending for health care, including mental health programs and long-term commitments to Medicaid, rather than expanding programs.

“To produce policies that really address the problem -- that is really the fundamental challenge,” said Chris Jennings, a former domestic policy adviser to Clinton whose expertise is health care. “This is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted response, and the administration has to capture and maintain the attention of the public and policymakers for extended periods of time.”

Jennings, now president of Jennings Policy Strategies and a co-director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Health Project, told RCP he was heartened to see a range of Americans jumping in to discuss the issues presented by the Newtown killings. Their backgrounds and perspectives go “beyond the traditional people who’ve been engaged,” he said.

Enlarging the public policy debate to include mental health is essential, he added, and those challenges “are immense.” They include identifying mental health conditions with known connections to violence; overcoming societal stigmas about getting help; increasing access to effective treatment; maintenance of populations with diagnosed conditions; social services; housing; education and training; employment; and the rights of families and their offspring when troubled children become adults.

“Just addressing guns won’t address the problem,” Jennings said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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