WASHINGTON – President Obama, in an impassioned plea to limit gun violence, outlined one of the most ambitious gun control efforts in decades as he made the first move in what is expected to be a stiff political battle that will mark the start of Obama’s second term.
Girding for a fight with one of the country’s most powerful lobbies – the National Rifle Association – the president urged Congress to pass universal background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons like those that have been used in recent mass shootings, including the one that killed 20 students and six educators in Newtown, Conn.
“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act,” Obama said. “And Congress must act soon.”
Obama also announced 23 different actions that he would take immediately, including one that bulks up the amount of information used in background checks, and another that allows the Centers for Disease Control to begin using federal dollars to research gun violence.
White House officials said their proposal would cost $500 million to implement. Obama also called for additional safeguards in schools, in part by putting an additional 1,000 police officers in schools.
The gun control debate has flared over the past month since the shooting in Connecticut, and is taking on new prominence in the days before Obama’s inauguration and the start of his second term. In a sign of how bitter the debate is likely to be, the NRA on Wednesday morning released an online advertisement calling Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because his two daughters are protected by gun-carrying members of the Secret Service.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the ad asks, referencing his daughter Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14, without showing their images.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the ad “repugnant and cowardly,” and several hours later Obama tried to answer such tactics.
‘‘Behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any commonsense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever,’’ Obama 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.’’
During the announcement, which took place in an auditorium next to the White House, Obama was joined by four young children who wrote to him in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. One urged changes, another said she felt bad for the parents of the children who died, and a third said they were scared such a shooting could happen again.
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged.” Obama also noted that in the month since the shootings in Connecticut, more than 900 Americans had been killed by guns.
Obama also urged Americans to contact members of Congress, something that he plans to continue doing to exert pressure.
“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 peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?” Obama said.
The recommendations came from a task force that was spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, who as a US senator in 1994 led the last major effort to address gun control.
Obama’s plan would enhance background checks by requiring all those who buy a gun to be checked for things like a history of mental health issues. Right now, those who purchase guns from licensed dealers have to undergo such checks, but those who buy them from unlicensed dealers, or at gun shows or through private sales, do not. By some measurements, about 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check.
The most controversial proposal is one that would ban certain assault rifles, and limit gun magazines to 10 rounds. Such a ban was put in place in 1994 but it was not renewed a decade later when it expired.
Such a restriction would outlaw the 30-round magazines that were used in Newtown, as well as in the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, the movie theater in Colorado, and the Arizona event at which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were wounded, six fatally.
Republicans have voiced support for some aspects of Obama’s proposal – including the enhanced background checks – but have been largely opposed to an assault weapons ban.
“House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”
Representative Edward J. Markey, who has announced plans to run for US Senator John Kerry’s seat if he’s confirmed as Secretary of State, quickly said he would file legislation on the issue. His legislation would enact into law one of Obama’s executive orders allowing the CDC to study gun violence. If Markey’s legislation became law it would prevent a future president from reversing Obama’s order.
Markey is also calling on the House to vote immediately after Obama’s inauguration next week on his gun control proposals.
“We can’t wait another day or for another tragedy to occur before we act,” Markey said in a statement. “If we want an incident like Newtown to never again befall our kids and our country, then we need an effort like never before to act against the scourge of gun violence in America.”