WASHINGTON — 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 might 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.
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 common-sense 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, also were 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.
Every day we wait, the number will keep growing, he said.
The president based his proposals on recommendations from an administration-wide task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. His plan marks the most comprehensive effort to address gun violence since Congress passed the 1994 ban on high-grade, military-style assault weapons. The ban expired in 2004, and Obama wants lawmakers to renew and expand it.
• Require background checks on all gun sales.
• Reinstate the assault weapons ban.
• Renew a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines.
• Prohibit the possession, transfer, manufacture and import of dangerous armor-piercing bullets.
• Senate confirmation of a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
• New gun trafficking laws penalizing people who help criminals get guns.
• Address legal barriers in health laws that bar some states from making available information about people who are prohibited from having guns.
• Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.
• Make sure that federal agencies share relevant information with the background check system.
• Direct the attorney general to work with other agencies to review existing laws to make sure they can identify individuals who shouldn't have access to guns.
• Direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other research agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence.
• Clarify that no federal law prohibits doctors or other health care providers from contacting authorities when patients threaten to use violence.
• Give communities the opportunity to hire up to 1,000 school resource officers and counselors.
• Require federal law enforcement to trace all recovered guns.
• Propose regulations that will enable law enforcement to run complete background checks before returning firearms that have been seized.
• Direct the Justice Department to analyze information on lost and stolen guns and make that information available to law enforcement.
• Provide training for state and local law enforcement, first responders and school officials on how to handle active-shooter situations.
• Make sure every school has a comprehensive emergency management plan.
• Help ensure that young people get needed mental health treatment.
• Ensure that health insurance plans cover mental health benefits.
• Encourage development of new technology to make it easier for gun owners to safely use and store their guns.