WASHINGTON — President Obama said Sunday that the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the worst of his presidency and that he wanted new legislation limiting access to some types of firearms passed within the first year of his second term.
''I think anybody who was up in Newtown, who talked to the parents, who talked to the families, understands that something fundamental in America has to change,'' Obama said on NBC's Meet the Press.'' "And all of us have to do some soul searching, including me as president, that we allow a situation in which 20 precious small children are getting gunned down in a classroom.''
He said that he would wait for a report from a task force chaired by Vice President Joe Biden before proposing specific legislation. But he said he had long supported a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips as well as expanded background checks as a way to ease gun violence in America.
The shooting in Newtown, where 20 elementary schoolchildren and six adults were killed in a matter of minutes by a man with a semiautomatic rifle, has renewed a national debate about gun control.
Obama said shortly after the shooting that gun control would be a ''central issue'' of his second term. Though some gun-control opponents have said they would be open to discussions about the issue, most have made clear they would oppose any legislation restricting gun ownership.
Leaders of the National Rifle Association and gun-control opponents in Congress have said they are not interested in cooperating with Biden's task force and have vowed to fight efforts to impose some type of ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines like that used in the Newtown shooting.
After the shooting, the NRA proposed placing armed security guards at schools across the country. In the interview on Sunday, Obama said he was ''skeptical'' that armed guards were a realistic solution.
He said no major changes in the nation's gun laws were possible without the strong support of the American people, but added that he believed most Americans, including gun owners, supported some type of legislation to restrict access to firearms.
"I think there are a vast majority of responsible gun owners out there who recognize that we can't have a situation in which somebody "with severe psychological problems is able to get the kind of high-capacity weapons that this individual in Newtown obtained and gun down our kids,'' he said.
The president added that he is ready to meet with Republicans and Democrats — anyone with a stake in the issue — to try to find common ground.
In a separate interview on Sunday, Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said any legislation would require grass-roots support, along with a respect for the rights of gun owners.
Vilsack said on CNN's "State of the Union'' that the discussion about gun laws should begin "with a respect for the Second Amendment and a recognition that there is a value system attached to it that is important.''
"It starts with the recognition that people do hunt, and that that's important to them,'' Vilsack said, noting that hunting is a way of life for millions of Americans.
But Vilsack said Newtown has changed the way people see the issue. ''I really believe that this is a different circumstance and a different situation,'' he said.
'The problem is that these conversations are always couched in the terms of dividing us,'' Vilsack said. "This could be a unifying conversation, and Lord knows we need to be unified.''
Obama said he would put forward a specific proposal based on recommendations from Biden's task force and lean on Congress to pass legislation within the first year of his term.
"The question then becomes whether we are actually shook up enough by what happened here that it does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts way,'' Obama said, speaking of the Newtown shooting.
''This is something that, you know, that was the worst day of my presidency. And it's not something that I want to see repeated.''
Besides passing gun violence legislation, Obama also listed deficit reduction and immigration as top priorities for 2013.
During the interview, the president also defended former senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, who has been mentioned as one of the leading candidates to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary.
Hagel supported the 2002 resolution approving US military action in Iraq, but later became a critic of the war. He has been denounced by some conservatives for not being a strong enough ally of Israel.
Also, many liberals and gay activists have banded against him for comments he made in 1998 about an openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship.
Obama noted that Hagel had apologized for his 14-year-old remark on gays.
In a separate development, Obama signed into law a five-year extension of the US government's authority to monitor the overseas phone calls and e-mails of suspected foreign spies and terrorists without obtaining a court order for each intercept.
The warrantless intercept program would have expired at the end of 2012 without the president's approval. The renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act won final passage in the Senate on Friday.