WASHINGTON - Conceding "this will be difficult," President Barack Obama urged a reluctant Congress on Wednesday to require background checks for all gun sales and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in an emotion-laden plea to curb gun violence in America.
The president's sweeping, $500 million plan, coming one month after the school massacre in Connecticut, marks the most comprehensive effort to tighten gun laws in nearly two decades. But his proposals, most of which are opposed by the National Rifle Association, face a doubtful future in a divided Congress where Republicans control the House.
Seeking to circumvent at least some opposition, Obama signed 23 executive actions on Wednesday, including orders to make more federal data available for background checks and end a freeze on government research on gun violence. But he acknowledged that the steps he took on his own would have less impact than the broad measures requiring approval from Capitol Hill.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act," Obama said, speaking at a White House ceremony with school children and their parents. "And Congress must act soon."
The president's announcements capped a swift and wide-ranging effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to respond to the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But Obama's gun control proposals set him up for a tough political fight with Congress as he starts his second term, when he'll need Republican support to meet three looming fiscal deadlines and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"I will put everything I've got into this, and so will Joe," the president said. "But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it."
Key congressional leaders were tepid in their response to the White House proposals.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office signaled no urgency to act, with spokesman Michael Steel saying only that "House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations. And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider gun violence legislation "early this year." But he did not endorse any of Obama's specific proposals.
The president vowed to use "whatever weight this office holds" to fight for his recommendations. He's likely to travel around the country in the coming weeks to rally public support and could engage his still-active presidential campaign operation in the effort. But he'll have to overcome a well-financed counter-effort by the NRA.
"This will be difficult," Obama acknowledged. "There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty -- not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves."
The president, speaking in front of an audience that included families of some of those killed in Newtown, said 900 Americans had lost their lives to gun violence in the four weeks since the school shootings.
"We can't put this off any longer," Obama declared. "Every day we wait, the number will keep growing."
Many Democrats say an assault weapons ban faces the toughest road in Congress. Obama wants lawmakers to reinstate the expired 1994 ban on the high-grade weapons, and strengthen the measure to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the prohibition by making cosmetic changes to banned guns.
The president is also likely to face opposition to his call for Congress to limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
But Democrats are hopeful they can build consensus around the president's call for universal background checks. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says 40 percent of gun sales are conducted with no criminal background checks, such as in some instances at gun shows or by private sellers over the Internet or through classified ads.
The NRA is opposed to all three measures. In a statement Wednesday, the gun lobby said, "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected" by Obama's efforts and the nation's children "will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
And on the eve of Obama's announcement, the NRA released an online video accusing him of being an "elitist hypocrite" for sending his daughters to school with armed Secret Service agents while opposing having guards with guns at all U.S. schools.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the video "repugnant and cowardly."
The president's proposals did include a $150 million request to Congress that would allow schools to hire 1,000 new police officers, counselors and psychologists. The White House plan also includes legislative and executive action to increase mental health services, including boosting funding for training aimed at getting young people into treatment more quickly.
A lopsided 84 percent of Americans back broader background checks, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. Nearly six in 10 Americans want stricter gun laws, the same poll showed, with majorities favoring a nationwide ban on military-style weapons and limits on gun violence depicted in video games, movies and TV shows.
The NRA and pro-gun lawmakers have long suggested that violent images in video games and entertainment are more to blame for mass shootings than the availability of guns. But Obama's proposals do little to address that concern, other than calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research links between violent images and gun attacks.
Government scientists have been prohibited from researching the causes and prevention of gun violence since 1996, when a budget amendment was passed that barred researchers from spending taxpayer money on such studies.
The administration is calling on Congress to provide $10 million for expanded research.
Obama also wants lawmakers to ban armor-piercing ammunition, except for use by the military and law enforcement. And he's asking them to create stiffer penalties for gun trafficking, to provide $14 million to help train police officers and others to respond to shootings, and to approve his nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
One of the president's executive actions on Wednesday was to nominate B. Todd Jones to head the ATF, which has been without a permanent director since 2006. Jones has served as the bureau's acting director since 2011.
Other steps Obama took through his presidential powers include:
-- Ordering tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks.
-- Requiring federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.
-- Ordering a review of safety standards for gun locks and gun safes.
Local and State Reaction
A state representative from The Woodlands said he would push to make a law banning semiautomatic weapons unenforceable in Texas.
"Our rights are enumerated in the Constitution and they cannot be infringed upon, and they should not be infringed upon," state Rep. Steve Toth said.
Houston attorney Dan Cogdell said Toth wouldn't have a leg to stand on, pointing to the supremacy clause in the Constitution.
"If there's a conflict between a federal law and a state law, the judge must follow the federal law," Codgell said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry stood firm in his opposition to the president's plan.
"The Vice President's committee was appointed in response to the tragedy at Newtown, but very few of his recommendations have anything to do with what happened there. Guns require a finger to pull the trigger. The sad young man who did that in Newtown was clearly haunted by demons and no gun law could have saved the children in Sandy Hook Elementary from his terror. There is evil prowling in the world - it shows up in our movies, video games and online fascinations, and finds its way into vulnerable hearts and minds. As a free people, let us choose what kind of people we will be. Laws, the only redoubt of secularism, will not suffice. Let us all return to our places of worship and pray for help. Above all, let us pray for our children. In fact, the piling on by the political left, and their cohorts in the media, to use the massacre of little children to advance a pre-existing political agenda that would not have saved those children, disgusts me, personally. The second amendment to the Constitution is a basic right of free people and cannot be nor will it be abridged by the executive power of this or any other president," Perry said in a statement.
Some Houstonians also do not want stricter gun control measures.
"I think it's kind of silly. Most of those assault rifles aren't assault rifles. It's generally just the look of the rifle and those features aren't going to stop someone from committing a crime," Scott Jackson said.
"Even if you do have some type of psychological issue, you're going to be able to access a gun plain and simple from someone on the street. You're going to be able to access a gun," Patty Granados said.
"It's not the honest people who are doing it. It's the criminals. You get rid of the weapons, criminals are still going to have it," Greg Deal said.
Some Houstonians said they hope stricter laws could help curb violent crimes.
"I think an assault weapons ban is definitely something we should consider," Rachel Lombardo said. "I don't think weapons should be banned completely, but I don't think a civilian should have a semi automatic assault rifle."
"Every little bit is going to help, whether we catch everything, someone is going to fall through the crack," Ron Pipes said. "But if we can report something and catch one incident before it happens, you'll save a life."
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