By David Jackson and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
President Obama unveiled the most sweeping set of gun-control proposals in two decades on Wednesday, a package that includes universal background checks on all gun buyers and a renewed ban on "military-style" assault weapons.
Obama also proposed restricting ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, as well as new school safety and mental health programs, all designed to prevent shootings like the one last month at an elementary school in Connecticut.
"This is our first task as a society," Obama said at a White House ceremony. "Keeping our children safe.
The president and Vice President Biden - who developed the plan after a series of meetings with 229 groups involved in gun violence issues - appeared with the children who wrote letters to the White House expressing concern about gun violence.
After reading some of those letters, Obama said: "These are our kids."
Also attending were family members of victims of the Dec. 14 attack that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. "Our hearts go out to you," Biden said, saying he and Obama want to "honor the memory of your children."
Obama said no law can "prevent every senseless act," but can be valuable if it can prevent one attack. "If there is even one life that can be saved, we've got an obligation to try it," the president said.
The White House issued a written plan with four goals: Keeping guns out of the wrong hands, getting "weapons of war" off the streets, upgrading school safety, and improving mental health services.
It includes 23 executive orders that Obama plans to address immediately, without the need for approval by Congress.
Among the specific proposals:
• Keeping guns out of the wrong hands. The White House is proposing "universal background checks" designed to get at private gun sales that are not covered by the current system, which applies to federally licensed dealers. The plan also includes four executive orders designed to remove barriers to information sharing among state and federal agencies.
• Restricting "weapons of war." Obama's plan calls for limiting ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds. The document notes that the Newtown killings and the July attack in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., involved the kinds of semi-automatic weapons that were targeted by the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The administration also wants to maintain the effort to ban armor-piercing bullets.
The president is also proposing harsher punishments for gun trafficking between states, as well as federal money to help cities pay for more police officers.
In addition, Obama nominated a new leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; his previous nominee has been held up for years.
• School safety. The plan proposes money to help local school districts hire 1,000 new school resource officers and school counselors.
• Mental health. The administration is proposing Project AWARE, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education. It would be designed to reach some 750,00 people to identify mental illness early in young people and refer them for treatment.
It adds up to the biggest government anti-gun violence program since 1994, when Congress passed an assault weapons ban that expired 10 years later. A year earlier, Congress approved the Brady Bill, requiring background checks on gun purchasers.
Some of the proposed gun control legislation will face a tough time in Congress, especially in the Republican-run House. Even some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have questioned whether a new assault weapons can pass Congress.
Reid, a gun rights supporter, told a Nevada television station over the weekend that, "in the Senate, we're going to do what we think can get through the House."
Biden said he has no "illusions" about the political challenges, but the Newtown shooting has shaken the nation's conscience. "The world has changed," Biden said.
The National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun lobby, has vowed to fight the gun-control proposals. The NRA has proposed armed guards in all schools, and expanding databases to block gun purchases by people who have been declared mentally ill.
Before Obama's event, the NRA released a video criticizing the president as an "elitist hypocrite" for opposing armed guards in every school even though his daughters receive Secret Service protection. White House spokesman Jay Carney called the ad "repugnant and disgusting."
At the White House event, Obama said he believes in Second Amendment rights to gun ownership, and knows that nearly all gun owners are law-abiding citizens. His plans, he said, are aimed "an irresponsible, law breaking few."
While not citing the NRA by name, Obama did denounce groups that gin up "fear" about a fictitious plot to take away people's guns.
Like Biden, Obama said it will be tough to get some of his proposals through Congress, but voters are also concerned about a spate of mass shootings that range from an elementary school in Connecticut to a movie theater in Colorado.
"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it,"' Obama said.