WASHINGTON — Months after gun control efforts crumbled in Congress, Vice President Joe Biden stood shoulder to shoulder Thursday with the attorney general and the top U.S. firearms official and declared the Obama administration would take two new steps to curb American gun violence.
But the narrow, modest scope of those steps served as pointed reminders that without congressional backing, President Barack Obama's capacity to make a difference is severely inhibited.
Still, Biden renewed a pledge from him and the president to seek legislative fixes to keep guns from those who shouldn't have them — a pledge with grim prospects for fulfillment amid the current climate on Capitol Hill.
"If Congress won't act, we'll fight for a new Congress," Biden said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "It's that simple. But we're going to get this done."
One new policy will bar military-grade weapons that the U.S. sells or donates to allies from being imported back into the U.S. by private entities. In the last eight years, the U.S. has approved 250,000 of those guns to come back to the U.S., the White House said, arguing that some end up on the streets. From now on, only museums and a few other entities like the government will be eligible to reimport military-grade firearms.
The ban will largely affect antiquated, World War II-era weapons that, while still deadly, rarely turn up at crime scenes, leaving some to question whether the new policy is much ado about nothing.
"Banning these rifles because of their use in quote-unquote crimes is like banning Model Ts because so many of them are being used as getaway cars in bank robberies," said Ed Woods, a 47-year-old from the Chico area of northern California.
Woods said he collects such guns because of their unique place in American history. He now wonders whether he'll be prohibited from purchasing the type of M1 Garand rifle his father used during World War II. The U.S. later sold thousands of the vintage rifles to South Korea.
"Someday my kids will have something that possibly their grandfather, who they never had a chance to meet, is connected to," Woods said in an interview.
The Obama administration is also proposing to close a loophole that it says allows felons and other ineligible gun purchasers to skirt the law by registering certain guns to a corporation or trust. The new rule would require people associated with those entities, like beneficiaries and trustees, to undergo the same type of fingerprint-based background checks before the corporation can register those guns.
Using the rule-making powers at his disposal, Obama can only place that restriction on guns regulated under the National Firearm Act, a 1934 law that only deals with the deadliest weapons, like machine guns and short-barreled shotguns. For the majority of weapons, there is no federal gun registration.
"It's simple, it's straightforward, it's common sense," Biden said of the measures he unveiled Thursday as he swore in Obama's new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Todd Jones.
The quick reproach from gun control opponents, however, underscored that the same forces that thwarted gun control efforts in Congress have far from mellowed on the notion of stricter gun laws in the future.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., accused the president of governing only by executive action while failing to sufficiently enforce gun laws already on the books. And the National Rifle Association called on Obama to stop focusing his efforts on inhibiting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
"The Obama administration has once again completely missed the mark when it comes to stopping violent crime," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
But proponents of gun control called them important steps to keep military-grade weapons out of American communities and plug a deadly hole in the background check system.
"It's time for Congress to stop dragging its feet and pass common-sense reforms that keep criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from illegally buying guns," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in a joint statement.
There are few signs the calculus in Congress has changed dramatically since April, when a package of measures including expanded background checks and an assault weapons ban flopped in the Senate despite intense advocacy by families of the 20 children and six adults gunned down in December in Newtown, Conn.