President Barack Obama is trying an end run around the NRA -- rallying groups as varied as churches, medical organizations, retailers and the Rotary Club to build support for new gun regulations.
It's an unusual strategy but one the Obama administration has used before: projecting strength on an issue by trying to create the perception that the White House is riding a wave of momentum from the American people. It was the theme of Obama's two presidential campaigns and was central to his campaign-style road show to tout his fiscal cliff priorities in December.
Participants in Vice President Joe Biden's meetings have said the White House is seeking to mount an aggressive effort to back the gun control push, which is likely to formally commence next week after Biden delivers his recommendations to the president.
During one session with a dozen religious leaders on Wednesday, Biden made a specific request to those gathered to preach to their congregations about the importance of enacting stronger gun control laws, said the Rev. Michael McBride, a participant in the meeting and a community organizer for the PICO Network, an alliance of faith-based organizations.
"The vice president shared how he felt this was one of the most important meetings of all the meetings, that the faith leaders, the faith community has a very unique role in engaging in the moral persuasion necessary to address the gun challenges in our country," McBride said. "He called upon us to take that seriously and that the administration and everyone involved is going to be looking to us to help to make that argument across the different faith traditions."
Biden has made a point of highlighting the broad diversity of organizations now backing the White House gun efforts, telling the NRA and other gun owner organizations in a meeting Thursday that "all of a sudden there is a different attitude" from groups not previously invested in gun control, according to Richard Feldman, who attended the session and is president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
In Biden's public remarks Thursday, he emphasized the extent of his panel's outreach to groups from fields including medicine, law, education, mental health, religious groups and social service outlets such as the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
"We realize this requires all the stakeholders to give us their best ideas to what is, as I said at the outset, a complicated problem," Biden said. "There is no single answer."
The message echoed one delivered by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a Tuesday conference call with major philanthropic groups, including the Open Society Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Endowment.
"There's only one reason why you get a bunch of deep-pocketed funders on the phone," said one participant in the Tuesday call. "It's not because they're great dancers. It's because at the end of the day you need to tap into them for something."
Biden on Thursday told the NRA and five other gun-owner groups that they would be wise to join the White House effort to combat gun violence and avoid public wrath, said Feldman, a former lobbyist for gun manufacturers who now favors some middle ground, such as requiring background checks for weapons purchased at gun shows.
"He was really pushing us all to get with his program. He said that the public wants something done," Feldman said. "His argument was all these other groups he's met with, the Pentacostals and evangelicals and others, all of a sudden there is a different attitude. The implication is they are more amenable now with going along, and so should you."
There is no evidence the groups will take Biden up on the offer.
The NRA issued a blistering statement condemning the meeting as evidence of the White House "agenda to attack the Second Amendment." Feldman said he was the only gun group representative in the room to back universal background checks -- and no one who participated supported new magazine or assault-weapons restrictions.
"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 NRA's statement said. "It is unfortunate that this administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. Instead, we will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works -- and what does not."
The White House declined to comment on the NRA's comments or the political implications of the group's opposition.
But gun control advocates hope the NRA's hard line will ultimately help the administration make its case to the public.
"This kind of statement just widens the divide between NRA members, who are quite reasonable people, and the NRA's lobbyists, who are solely in the business of creating conflict to raise money," said Mark Glaze, the director of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns group. "It galvanizes not just Democrats, but people in the middle -- which includes a lot of NRA members."
During the Thursday session with the NRA, Biden said Obama has decided to seek a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"The vice president said, 'I'm the vice president, not the president, and the president has already made his decisions about assault weapons and magazines,'" Feldman said.
To have any chance at all of passing new legislation, the White House will need new allies in the fight.
Biden told religious leaders that the White House needs them to spread its message, McBride said.
"He knows that it's going to be a tough road to come up with the legislative package that would make everyone feel happy," McBride said. "So he was appealing to our strength and our unique call as moral and faith leaders to help emphasize in our own faith traditions the importance of not only legislation but changing the culture of violence in our country."
The call with philanthropic foundations delved into details of academic studies the groups have subsidized into how to reduce gun violence. Some participants on the call stressed that they are not backing any specific legislation but share with the White House a common goal of reduced violence.
"This is not about gun control, this is about gun violence prevention," said one of the call's participants, Julio Marcial of the California Wellness Foundation. "Gun control, we lost that opportunity 30 years ago before there were 300 million guns on the streets."
The White House outreach effort is still missing some key players in the gun debate.
Biden on Thursday said he still hasn't had direct talks with representative of gun manufacturers, though he said he is trying to do so. And Attorney General Eric Holder's meeting with major retailers may be good optics, but the majority of guns are sold through smaller gun-exclusive retailers, said people involved in studying the industry.
Those gun-only retailers have not met with Biden. They are represented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which also lobbies for the manufacturers. It is based in Newtown, Conn., the site of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"If they're trying to pick out Wal-Mart and Bass Pro and Dick's to endorse some kind of more restrictive rules with regard to transactions, they don't sell the majority of guns," said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Pasco, who was the ATF's congressional affairs director for 13 years, said there's little chance the NRA will agree on any restriction on assault rifles or magazine size -- the manufacturers who make those weapons and largely fund the NRA would lose too much money.
Still, longtime gun-control advocates praised the administration's outreach as a welcome step.
"Gun violence isn't just a crime problem but also a national health care epidemic and one of our country's toughest social ills, so it makes sense to engage a lot of different institutions," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), the foremost gun control advocate in the House. "We need a holistic approach to reducing gun violence, and the White House should be commended for recognizing that."
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