WASHINGTON (AP) — Braced for a fight, President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled the most sweeping proposals for curbing gun violence in two decades, pressing a reluctant Congress to pass universal background checks and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like the ones used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
A month after that horrific massacre, Obama also used his presidential powers to enact 23 measures that don’t require the backing of lawmakers. The president’s executive actions include ordering federal agencies to make more data available for background checks, appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and directing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence.
But the president, speaking at White House ceremony, focused his attention on the divided Congress, saying only lawmakers could enact the most effective measures for preventing more mass shootings.
“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act,” Obama said. “And Congress must act soon.”
The president vowed to use “whatever weight this office holds” to press lawmakers into action on his $500 million plan. He is also calling for improvements in school safety, including putting 1,000 police officers in schools and bolstering mental health care by training more health professionals to deal with young people who may be at risk.
Even supportive lawmakers say the president’s gun control proposals — most of which are opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association — face long odds on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker John Boehner’s office was non-committal to the president’s package of proposed legislation, but signaled no urgency to act. “House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said ahead of Obama’s presentation that he didn’t know whether an assault weapons ban could pass the Senate, but said there are some measures that can, such as improved background checks.
“There are some who say nothing will pass. I disagree with that,” Leahy, D-Vt., told students at Georgetown University Law Center. “What I’m interested in is what we can get.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Obama’s package “thoughtful recommendations” and said the Senate would consider legislation addressing gun violence early this year.
“The tragedy at Sandy Hook was just the latest sad reminder that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens – especially our children – from gun violence and a culture of violence, and all options should be on the table moving forward,” he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed Obama’s measures as “an executive power grab.”
“He paid lip service to our fundamental constitutional rights,” Priebus said of the president, “but took actions that disregard the Second Amendment and the legislative process.”
Acknowledging the tough fight ahead, Obama said there will be pundits, politicians and special interest groups that will seek to “gin up fear” that the White House wants to take away the right to own a gun.
“Behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any commonsense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever,” he said. “The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their membership says this time must be different, that this time we must do something to protect our communities and our kids.”
The president was flanked by children who wrote him letters about gun violence in the weeks following the Newtown shooting. Families of those killed in the massacre, as well as survivors of the shooting, were also in the audience, along with law enforcement officers and congressional lawmakers.
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged.”
Seeking to expand the impetus for addressing gun violence beyond the Newtown shooting, the president said more than 900 Americans have been killed by guns in the month since the elementary school massacre.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.