WASHINGTON (AP) - Conceding "this will be difficult," President Barack Obama urged a reluctant Congress on Wednesday to require background checks for all gun sales and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in an emotion-laden plea to curb gun violence in America.
The president's sweeping, $500 million plan, coming one month after the school massacre in Connecticut, marks the most comprehensive effort to tighten gun laws in nearly two decades. But his proposals, most of which are opposed by the National Rifle Association, face a doubtful future in a divided Congress where Republicans control the House.
Seeking to circumvent at least some opposition, Obama signed 23 executive actions on Wednesday, including orders to make more federal data available for background checks and end a freeze on government research on gun violence. But he acknowledged that the steps he took on his own would have less impact than the broad measures requiring approval from Capitol Hill.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act," Obama said. "And Congress must act soon."
The announcements capped a rushed effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to react to the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But Obama's gun control proposals set him up for a tough political fight with Congress as he starts his second term, when he'll need Republican support to meet three looming fiscal deadlines and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Key congressional leaders were tepid in their response to the White House proposals.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office signaled no urgency to act, with spokesman Michael Steel saying only that "House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations. And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider gun violence legislation "early this year." But he did not endorse any specific proposals.
The president vowed to use "whatever weight this office holds" to fight for his recommendations. But he'll have to overcome a counter-effort by the NRA.
The president said 900 Americans had lost their lives to gun violence in the four weeks since the school shootings.
"We can't put this off any longer," Obama declared. "Every day we wait, the number will keep growing."
Many Democrats say an assault weapons ban faces the toughest road in Congress. Obama wants lawmakers to reinstate the expired 1994 ban on the high-grade weapons, and strengthen the measure to prevent manufacturers from circumventing the prohibition by making cosmetic changes to banned guns.
The president is also likely to face opposition to his call for Congress to limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
But Democrats are hopeful they can build consensus around the president's call for universal background checks.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says 40 percent of gun sales are conducted with no criminal background checks.
The NRA is opposed to all three measures. In a statement, the Second Amendment lobby said, "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected" by Obama's efforts and the nation's children "will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
And on the eve of Obama's announcement, the NRA released an online video accusing him of being an "elitist hypocrite" for sending his daughters to school with armed Secret Service agents while opposing having guards with guns at all U.S. schools.
The president's proposals did include a $150 million request to Congress that would allow schools to hire 1,000 new police officers, counselors and psychologists. The White House plan also includes legislative and executive action to increase mental health services.
The NRA and pro-Second Amendment lawmakers have long suggested that violent images in video games and entertainment are more to blame for mass shootings than the availability of guns. But Obama's proposals do little to address that concern.
Obama also wants lawmakers to ban armor-piercing ammunition, except for use by the military and law enforcement. And he's asking them to create stiffer penalties for gun trafficking, to provide $14 million to help train police officers and others to respond to shootings, and to approve his nominee to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
One of the president's executive actions was to nominate B. Todd Jones to be permanent head of the ATF.
Other steps Obama took through his presidential powers include:
- Ordering tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks.
- Requiring federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.
- Ordering a review of safety standards for gun locks and gun safes.