THEY are the unlikeliest double act since Tom and Jerry.

One is quiet and thoughtful, the other makes PT Barnum look like Marcel Marceau. One has great power and responsibility, the other reaches for the foghorn in a New York minute. When placed beside this pair, even the shotgun wedding of John McCain and Sarah Palin begins to look sensible.

As far as we know, Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, did not put in a personal plea for Piers Morgan, second-best-known host of CNN's Tonight, to join him in a quest to bring in serious and lasting gun control laws. Thus far, Mr Obama has managed just fine in the wing-man stakes with Joe Biden. But now a former editor of a British red top has wrapped himself in the red white and blue and made himself Mr Obama's unofficial deputy in the matter of gun control. Suddenly, magnificently, there is a point to Piers.

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After the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered, Mr Obama promised to respond with plans for reform. This week he delivered. He signed 23 executive orders, including ones that will improve background checks on gun buyers.

The big-ticket items, the ones that will require the approval of Congress, included a ban on rapid-firing assault weapons, outlawing armour-piercing bullets, and bringing in a criminal background check for all gun sales, including private transactions.

"I will put everything I've got into this," said Mr Obama. He will need to. It is quite a challenge for the world's most powerful elected politician to set himself. The President so often accused of not wanting to sweat the big stuff has pledged to make America – 9960 gun murders in 2010 – a safer place. It is the kind of clear, measurable pledge that the modern politician is told to avoid. Mr Obama has put it up in lights.

It is not quite as perfect a pledge as it appears, however, because Mr Obama is hardly in this alone. He can stage gun control rallies, he can set up an online petition, both of which are planned. But to truly change America's gun culture, as Mr Obama made clear, he will require the help of Congress and society. "The only way we can change is if the American people demand it."

Anyone who doubts this is going to be a long, hard, dirty fight is referred to the new National Rifle Association advertisement. Calling the President an "elitist hypocrite", the NRA ad asked why Mr Obama's children should be protected by armed guards at school while other people's children at other schools were not. "Are the President's kids more important than yours?" it asked. Suddenly, the question, "How low can debate go?" has a new, depressing answer.

Founded in 1871, the NRA is an institution that is as bizarre to many of its countrymen and women as it is to outsiders. Here is an organisation that fights for the freedom to bear arms yet attacks those who exercise their free speech to argue otherwise. It claims to be promoting safety while cherishing dangerous weapons. And it sets itself up as the voice of the ordinary Joe while in reality it is one of the wealthiest and best-connected organisations in America, with both Republican and Democrat congressmen receiving its backing. With four million members, it is ruthlessly organised and thriving. If as much effort had gone into eliminating poverty as protecting guns, everyone in America would live on the Big Rock Candy Mountain by now.

That the NRA should be so bold as to drag a President's children into the debate is a sign that internet petitions and town hall speeches won't win this fight alone. Which is where a certain Piers Morgan comes in. Whatever you think of Mr Morgan, he has ignited this debate in a way that decades of polite pleading by the liberal establishment has failed to do.

Morgan has used his television show and Twitter account, with its three million followers, to goad and embarrass the NRA, treating them the way he once did D-list British celebrities. He has called them "cowards" for refusing to appear on his show. Judging by the response he is getting from the anti-gun-control lobby, his shock-and-annoy tactics are working. Those who have gone on his show to defend gun ownership have been royally monstered in true British tabloid fashion.

As helpful as the actions of Mr Morgan have been, not least to his ratings, even his Texas-sized ego knows it is not enough. "Great speech," he said about Mr Obama's gun control plans. "Now for action." You would have to be the most sunshine Sally of optimists to think new legislation would be passed any time soon, not least by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Standing in the way of reform are the Constitution and the Supreme Court judgment of 2008 which ruled that Americans had the right to own a firearm for personal use. Add to this the fact that much gun control falls to individual states and it is plain what a long series of battles lie ahead. New York has led the way, but how many others will follow?

The NRA will do what it always does and wait its opponents out. After Sandy Hook, one poll put support for a ban on semi-automatic guns at 62%. That has now fallen to 56%. Post-Sandy Hook there is a shift in NRA tactics away from the easily dismissed freedom arguments (the freedom to put children in harm's way?) to the protection approach. As the NRA puts it: "The only guy that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." That may sound dangerous nonsense to us, but watching night after night of local TV news featuring armed break-ins and robberies has its effects.

As if to underline the enormity of the task ahead, the Obama-Morgan double act is being turned into a trio. The Great Communicator, the late Ronald Reagan, is being enlisted to support The Great Orator and the Big Blowhard. As Mr Obama pointed out, Mr Reagan was in favour of gun control too. If it was good enough for a Republican hero, it ought to persuade a few lesser lights. That, anyway, is the hope. Without that, neither President nor chat show host will get anywhere.