ABC The Drum

From Iraq to Wall Street, Barack Obama is used to seizing the moment to bring change. But his battle to tighten gun laws may prove to be his toughest yet, writes

Just days before being sworn in for a second term in office, US president Barack Obama may be at the very height of his powers.

With a fresh mandate from the American people, and freed of the political shackles of ever facing another election, Obama has the full force of his office and four bruising years of experience in getting (some) things done.

Politics is all about timing, and that has never been more true than for Barack Obama, who saw his moment in early 2007 to ride a wave of dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the status-quo in Washington all the way into the Oval Office.

During that historic 2008 campaign, then senator Obama often talked about "the fierce urgency of now" as his rationale for running as an inexperienced outsider in what proved to be the ultimate change election.

In early 2009, as he took office amid the worst economic collapse since 1929, President Obama seized the moment to make fundamental changes not just to Wall Street and the auto industry, but America's failing health care system. And it seems he is feeling the same fierce urgency again in the wake of the mass shooting of twenty six children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14.

In 2008, Americans were weary with the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; in 2013, many are weary with the toll the guns designed to fight conventional wars are taking in the cities and neighbourhoods of the United States.

It's not just about mass shootings like Newtown, or the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado last July; it's about the more than 8,000 other Americans who were murdered with firearms in 2012 that didn't make news around the world. But surely if anything would galvanise lawmakers and the nation into action, the sight of 20 dead first-graders shot in their classrooms barely a week before Christmas would.

If not now, when? In the hours and days that followed Newtown, all right-minded Americans appeared to agree there was a need for urgent and meaningful action, but that was where agreement ended. Just as was the case in the aftermath of Aurora, for many pro-gun conservatives, the logical response was not to try to take the guns out of the hands of potential killers; the answer was to give more people guns to defend themselves.

"If those folks in that movie theatre had a gun they could have stopped the shooter — same with those teachers at Sandy Hook," their reasoning went.

Gun sales spiked when President Obama was first elected, even though he never promised action on gun control and only effectively loosened gun control measures in his first term, and gun dealers are doing brisk business again as gun owners increase their arsenals and stock up on ammunition.

Membership of the powerful National Rifle Association has surged by 250,000 in the past month. President Obama tasked his deputy Joe Biden to head the White House inquiry into gun violence, talk to both the NRA and gun control advocates, and come up with a way forward.

The plan put forward this week requires background checks on all gun sales and a new, stronger ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The president has also called for a ban on armour-piercing bullets and stiffer penalties for gun crime.

Instead of putting armed guards in schools, President Obama wants 1,000 school resource officers and mental health experts to help identify students at risk of going off the rails.

Flanked by four young children who had written to him asking for action on gun violence, President Obama signed 23 executive actions which stiffen existing laws, but he needs the fractious US congress to initiate new laws on high-powered weapons and ammunition.

In a deliberate irony, given his support for abortion rights, President Obama reframed the issue of gun rights in terms of the greater "right to life" of the children at Sandy Hook, the movie-goers in Aurora and the victims of countless other gun crimes.

"Those rights are at stake, we're responsible," the president said. "This is our first task as a society... keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged; we can't put it off any longer."

Again it is the fierce urgency of now. But Barack Obama's latest battle may prove to be his toughest yet. Already congressional Republicans have rejected his proposals, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham saying a ban on assault weapons "has already been tried and failed".

Senator Graham maintains his support for an armed response: "I believe the best way to confront a homicidal maniac who enters a school is for them to be met with armed resistance from a trained professional."

And while support for tighter gun controls has spiked by around 50 per cent since the Newtown shooting, still just 38 per cent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the nation's gun laws and want them strengthened.

This article was originally published by ABC The Drum