President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, talks about proposals to reduce gun violence Wednesday in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called upon Congress on Wednesday to toughen America’s gun laws to confront mass shootings and everyday gun violence, betting that public opinion has shifted enough to support the broadest push for gun control in a generation.
At a White House event, Obama announced plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and tougher gun trafficking laws to crack down on the spread of weapons across the country.
Without waiting for Congress, the president also acted on his own authority, signing nearly two dozen executive actions designed to increase the enforcement of existing gun laws and improve the flow of information among federal agencies in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have them.
The announcement, just four days before Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are sworn in for a second term, committed the administration to a high-profile and politically volatile legislative campaign that will test their strength for the four years to come. Obama vowed to rally the nation on an issue he largely avoided in his first term and during both of his presidential campaigns.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe,” he declared.
The president’s pledge to act was the culmination of a monthlong process that began after the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the wake of the shootings, Obama promised action, but it was not immediately clear how far he was willing to go in the face of intense political opposition.
Wednesday’s announcement reflected a decision by the White House to seize on public outrage to challenge the political power of the National Rifle Association and other forces that have successfully fought new gun laws for decades.
In an emotionally charged event, Obama stood on a stage with four young children who he said had written to him asking for stronger gun laws. Invoking the memory of a young girl named Grace McDonnell who was killed in the Newtown shootings, the president vowed not to let the momentum for new, tougher gun laws fade.
“In the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality,” he said. “If there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”
Speaking to a room packed with gun control advocates and family members of shooting victims, Obama said a painting by Grace, given to him by Grace’s father, hangs in his private study in the White House. He said the painting serves as a reminder of his obligation to protect “the most vulnerable” members of society.
“This is our first task as a society,” Obama said. “Keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.”
The effort will be difficult and risky, as administration officials have acknowledged. Bruce Reed, the chief of staff for Biden, told a group of liberal activists Tuesday night that passing the president’s proposals in Congress will be even tougher than it was to pass an assault-weapons ban in 1994, according to participants at the briefing.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner said in a statement that “House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations. And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, considered a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, quickly made it clear that Obama’s proposals will face intense opposition in Congress.
“Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook,” Rubio said. “President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence.”
But the White House believes that the dynamic around guns may be changing, and that the president has a window of opportunity that he cannot pass up. Obama and Biden will take their message across the country even as the White House and its allies begin an online effort to put pressure on lawmakers.
“I have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook,” Biden said. “The world has changed, and is demanding action.”
The NRA appeared ready for the fight. It said it would work with Congress on efforts to secure schools, fix the mental health system and prosecute criminals but criticized Obama’s proposals.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the group said in a statement. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
On Tuesday, it posted a video mocking Obama for opposing armed guards at the nation’s schools even as his own daughters have Secret Service protection. The video calls the president an “elitist hypocrite.”
The White House issued an angry response to the ad. “Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “But to go so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.”
The president and Biden on Wednesday described their plan as a comprehensive effort that includes four major legislative proposals and 23 separate executive actions.
The president called for renewing and strengthening a ban on the sale and production of military-style assault weapons that first passed in 1994 only to expire in 2004. He also called for a ban on the production and sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Obama’s plan also would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing the long-standing loophole that allows buyers to avoid such screening by purchasing weapons at gun shows or from private sellers. The background database, in place since 1996, has stopped 1.5 million sales to felons, fugitives, convicted domestic abusers and others, but today nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from the system.
Administration officials called the enhanced background check requirements the single most important thing that could be done to prevent gun violence and mass shootings. The only exceptions would be transfers between family members and certain “temporary transfers” for hunting and sporting purposes.
The administration also said it will strengthen the background check system by addressing legal barriers that keep some mental health records out of the database, improve incentives for states to share records and direct law enforcement agencies to crack down on those who evade the background check system.
Obama called on Congress to ban the possession or transfer of armor-piercing bullets and urged lawmakers to crack down on “straw purchasers” who can pass background checks and then pass along guns to criminals or others forbidden from purchasing them.
The legislative effort will start in the Senate, which remains under Democratic control, unlike the House, which is led by Republicans. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would hold the first hearings into the proposals on Jan. 30.
In the House, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the Republican chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he would “review carefully” the president’s proposals and would have a hearing “in the coming weeks” on how to enhance school safety.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over gun legislation, expressed skepticism about the assault weapon ban but openness to toughening background checks. He noted that the gunman in Connecticut obtained the weapons he used from his mother, rather than by purchasing them.
“If you’re talking about reinstating the assault weapons ban or some other effort that’s been made in recent years, we don’t find that those things would lead to preventing these types of activities from occurring,” Goodlatte said on C-Span. “But we certainly in terms of background checks, in terms of keeping weapons out of the hands of criminals and people who have serious mental health difficulties, we want to do that and we would take a close look at that.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., drew a firm line.
“The Second Amendment is non-negotiable,” he said. “The right to bear arms is a right, despite President Obama’s disdain for the Second Amendment and the Constitution’s limits on his power.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Obama also said he will nominate a new director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency that regulates guns but has gone six years without a permanent leader confirmed by the Senate. Obama settled on Todd Jones, who has been acting director since September 2011.
In addition to the legislative efforts, White House officials stressed the actions that Obama is now taking on his own. In recent days, gun rights advocates have accused the president of a power grab, saying they feared he would exceed his executive authority in an attempt to take their guns away.
The list of executive actions is relatively modest, with most of the steps involving the president directing agencies to do a better job of sharing information.
Among the executive actions: to “launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign”; to “review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes”; and to “direct the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies.”
The president also promises to “launch a national dialogue” on mental health led by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, and Arne Duncan, the education secretary.
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