Unveiling gun control initiative, Obama cites 'common-sense measures'

President Obama shared the stage with schoolchildren as he announced a gun control plan to combat violence. Top of the list: banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, making schools safer, and improving mental health services.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, gestures as he talks about proposals to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, Jan. 16, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington.

President Obama unveiled a sweeping initiative Wednesday aimed at reducing gun violence in America, including proposals to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and expand background checks to include all gun purchases, not just those at stores.

Mr. Obama also announced 23 executive actions that do not require congressional approval, such as improved tracking of recovered guns, improvements to the federal background check system, enhanced school safety, and greater national attention to mental health.

“They're common-sense measures,” Obama said, speaking in an auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. “They have the support of the majority of the American people.”

But, he added, speaking of the aspects that require congressional approval, “that doesn't mean any of this is going to be easy to enact or implement.”

The president also nominated the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, to become director of the agency, which has gone six years without permanent leadership. Gun rights activists have sought to limit the reach of the ATF, which regulates the firearms industry.

Obama’s initiative comes a month after the massacre of 26 schoolchildren and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a tragedy that shocked the nation in a way that other mass shootings have not. Included in the audience were victims’ families. On stage with the president were four children who had written him letters after the Newtown massacre.

“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.”

Obama faced criticism for appearing to use children as props in his effort to enact controversial legislation. But that was the point: The fact that so many children – 20 first-graders – were killed in Newtown touched Obama like nothing else in his presidency, he has said himself, and he has made gun control a top priority as he starts his second term.

“In the days ahead I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make [new gun laws] a reality,” Obama said, “because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.”

A new ban on assault weapons may be the hardest to enact. An earlier ban was in place from 1994 to 2004, but expired amid opposition by members of Congress from both parties and by the gun lobby. Gun rights activists have said the law was ineffective, as gun manufacturers easily found ways around it. Ditto the accompanying ban on high-capacity magazines, those that contain more than 10 rounds. But pro-gun forces still oppose such measures, saying they represent the start of a “slippery slope” toward more restrictive measures on gun ownership.

The measure providing for a “universal background check” for gun purchases may have a better chance at passing, given strong public support.

During his remarks, Obama sought repeatedly to reassure gun owners that he respects their rights, as enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

“I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen,” he said. “There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting or sport or protection or collection.”

He added that he believes most gun owners agree that guns should be kept out of the hands of “dangerous people.”

What the president didn’t say explicitly is that he is willing to go along with the proposal by the National Rifle Association that armed guards be added to schools – at least for those schools that wish to have them.

But in the administration’s written fact sheet on Obama’s initiative, the go-ahead for additional armed guards is there.

“Each school is different and should have the flexibility to address its most pressing needs,” the statement says. “Some schools will want trained and armed police; others may prefer increased counseling services. Either way, each district should be able to choose what is best to protect its own students.”

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