(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Pledging to “put everything I’ve got into this,” a somber President Barack Obama challenged Congress on Wednesday to approve an extensive package of gun control proposals that he said would help prevent mass shootings and reduce the epidemic of gun violence.
The president’s response to the December massacre at a Connecticut school included renewing the expired ban on sales of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, plus expanding background checks of gun buyers. Those measures will face strong opposition in Congress from most Republicans and some Democrats, making prospects for passage highly uncertain.
Obama acknowledged that difficulty and signaled his intention to go over the heads of lawmakers to rally public support. Vice President Joe Biden, who helped formulate the proposals, said that, after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six school staffers dead, “the world has changed, and it’s demanding action.”
The plan, which includes 23 executive actions the president can take on his own, was described as a major initiative by advocates on both sides of the debate. But in many respects, it is limited in scope, reflecting the political constraints of an issue that deeply divides the country, as well as the power of the gun lobby.
Left out, for example, was a proposal for background checks on buyers of ammunition, which Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a proponent, called “the black hole of gun violence prevention.” Such checks were included in a sweeping New York law that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Tuesday.
The most important parts of Obama’s plan will require congressional approval. They include a federal ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons, with fewer loopholes than the 1994 law that expired in 2004. Several states already have such bans. The president also wants to reinstate an earlier ban on sales of magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.
Obama also wants to expand the background-check system to encompass all gun purchases, including the nearly 40 percent that are estimated to occur at gun shows and in private sales. Six states require background checks on all firearms sold at gun shows, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Federally licensed gun dealers are already required to run checks to ensure that potential buyers have not been convicted of a felony or domestic violence, or committed to a mental institution. But for years, the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress have blocked universal background checks.
“This will be difficult,” Obama said. “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. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform.”
Obama said his response to that opposition will be to try to mobilize public support — not just from the “usual suspects,” a reference to liberals and residents of urban areas and coastal states — but also “in those areas, in congressional districts, where the tradition of gun ownership is strong.” That includes rural areas, including large swaths of the Midwest, South and Mountain West.
He urged the public to pressure lawmakers. “Ask them what’s more important, doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some little peace of mind when they drop their children off for first grade,” he said.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the political limits, Obama signed three executive orders that do not require congressional approval to enhance the tracing of weapons seized by law enforcement, provide more federal records to the background-check system and foster research into gun violence.
He condemned previous efforts by Congress, prodded by the gun lobby, that have effectively blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from investigating the causes of gun violence.
“We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence,” said Obama, who also called on Congress to “fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.”
Obama announced numerous initiatives. He said the background-check system would be strengthened by, among other steps, making it easier for states to share information about mentally ill persons who should be prohibited from owning guns. He also proposed spending for increased training in the areas of school safety and mental health.
The price tag of the package is nearly $4.5 billion, according to the White House. Most of it — $4 billion — would subsidize the cost of keeping 15,000 police on the streets, renewing a portion of an earlier Obama jobs initiative that failed to gain approval in Congress.
Foes of gun control condemned Obama’s actions, calling them an infringement of the rights of gun owners and an ineffective response to gun violence. Typical was the response of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, who said Obama “is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress.”
The NRA echoed its earlier criticisms of Obama. “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.”
Separately, the White House tangled with the NRA over a new video released by the gun group. It labeled Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for opposing an NRA proposal to put an armed guard in every school in the country while his two daughters are protected by the Secret Service.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s children “should not be used as pawns in a political fight” and called the attack “repugnant and cowardly.”
At the same time, however, Obama is proposing that Congress send $150 million to local school districts and police departments to put up to 1,000 more police officers in schools.
That part of the president’s plan drew criticism from the left, including from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. In a statement, Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, warned that Obama’s plan “will turn sanctuaries for education into armed fortresses.”
California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who wrote the expired assault weapons ban and plans to introduce a new version next week, said she was heartened by Obama’s call for tougher gun laws. But getting the measures through Congress, she said, will be “uphill all the way.”
Feinstein said a “hardening of the right” has complicated the upcoming fight. Like Obama, she said that public pressure would be crucial to overcome congressional opposition.
“People have to rise up,” she said. “The deciding factor will be the American people.”
(Melanie Mason, Michael A. Memoli and Morgan Little contributed to this report.)