WASHINGTON -- The White House is working with its allies on a well-financed campaign in Washington and around the country to shift public opinion toward stricter gun laws and provide political cover to lawmakers who end up voting for an assault weapons ban or other restrictions on firearms.
With President Barack Obama preparing to push a legislative agenda aimed at curbing the nation's gun violence, pillars of his political network, along with independent groups, are raising millions of dollars and mapping out strategies in an attempt to shepherd new regulations through Congress.
But the efforts, designed in large part to counter opposition from the National Rifle Association, face serious political obstacles on Capitol Hill. The NRA spent more than $20 million on federal election campaigns last year, and its lobbying muscle extends from Washington to state capitals around the country.
Most Republicans in the GOP-controlled House also oppose additional gun regulations, as do some key Senate Democrats -- meaning that the groups aligned with Mr. Obama will have to persuade dozens of skeptical lawmakers to vote for the president's eventual proposals.
The groups, whose leaders are in regular contact with the White House, are working to enlist religious leaders, mayors, police chiefs and other influential constituents to lobby their local lawmakers in their home districts. The organizations also plan to stage rallies at congressional town hall meetings across the nation in much the same way that Tea Party activists mounted opposition in 2009 to Mr. Obama's health care overhaul.
A trial run for the burgeoning campaign came this week, when the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ran hard-hitting ads in North Dakota and Capitol Hill newspapers against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who said Sunday that some of the gun measures Mr. Obama is considering are "extreme." After the ads -- which told Ms. Heitkamp "Shame on you" -- the freshman senator's office issued a statement opening the door to supporting some gun-control measures.
"You have to get those members of Congress who think the easiest position is to be with the NRA to think that someone will walk up to them in the supermarket and say, 'Why can't we just have background checks?' " said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank helping to coordinate the effort. "They have to think of these as mainstream issues." Other organizations in the effort include liberal interest groups, labor unions and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led and financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent.
A new political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, was launched this week by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and has picked up seven-figure donations from major Democratic benefactors.
Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Ron Conway, a leading Silicon Valley angel investor, are helping finance the Giffords group and co-hosting a San Francisco fundraiser later this week, an organizer said. Two wealthy Texas lawyers, Steve and Amber Mostyn, told news outlets Wednesday that they had given $1 million to the organization. Ms. Giffords was shot in the head two years ago in a mass shooting outside a Tucson supermarket.
While groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence have long lobbied for stricter gun laws, last month's massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school spurred many progressive organizations, millionaire donors and other activists to focus on the issue.
An administration working group led by Vice President Joe Biden is preparing a set of gun-control proposals that could be announced by the end of this month, perhaps as part of Mr. Obama's State of the Union address. Lawmakers say Congress could begin considering gun bills in two weeks.
Mr. Biden, after a meeting Wednesday with victims of gun violence and leaders of gun-safety organizations, vowed that the administration will take swift action. "This is a problem that requires immediate attention," he said. "I want to make clear that we're not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing."
The White House is considering a wide range of legislative proposals, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as universal background checks on gun buyers. Mr. Biden also said Wednesday that Mr. Obama may take executive actions that sidestep Congress, although he did not provide details.
The vice president's comments sparked an immediate and sharp backlash from Republicans. "The Founding Fathers never envisioned executive orders being used to restrict our constitutional rights," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said in a statement. "We live in a republic, not a dictatorship."
Mr. Biden's meetings with interest groups to build consensus will continue today, when he will meet with NRA and other gun-owner group representatives as well as one from Wal-Mart, one of the nation's leading gun retailers. The NRA, which signaled its opposition to any new gun regulations, suggested placing armed guards at all U.S. schools in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
Earlier this week, senior White House aides organized a conference call with a roster of private foundations, some of which are funding polls, public education campaigns and other anti-gun-violence initiatives.
One objective is to drive a wedge between the NRA's policy agenda and the views of a majority of its members, activists said. Mayors Against Illegal Guns commissioned a study last year by GOP pollster Frank Luntz that found that 74 percent of NRA members support requiring criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun.