By Justin Sink - 01/17/13 01:12 AM EST
President Obama on Wednesday initiated a high-stakes gun-control fight with Congress and the National Rifle Association (NRA), demanding that lawmakers approve significant new restrictions on firearms in response to a string of deadly shootings.
Obama said Congress should pass bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and agree to universal background checks intended to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
He also called for lawmakers to take up new federal laws toughening penalties for gun trafficking and to provide additional funding for safety and research programs.
The plan drew immediate criticism from Republicans, with many accusing him of a power grab that trampled the Second Amendment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted bipartisan opposition, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned Obama’s legislative effort would “undermine Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.”
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office was noncommittal, saying he would review the proposals.
“House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. “And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who over the weekend cast doubt on an assault-weapon ban winning approval, said he would bring gun legislation to the floor but provided no details on what it would include. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said his committee would set hearings for later this month.
Obama and the White House made it clear they will enjoy a combative fight over the issue with Republicans, with the president indicating he will try to exert public pressure on Congress, as he has done in recent fights with the GOP over taxes.
“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,” said Obama, who was flanked by four children who had written letters of sympathy to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe,” he said, making reference to Vice President Biden, who led a task force that gave recommendations to Obama this week. “But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.”
He repeatedly emphasized to legislators an imperative to do “the right thing.”
The tragic killing — by a lone gunman — of 20 6- and 7-year-olds in Newtown, Conn., last month has shifted the debate over gun violence, and it seems doubtful Obama would be making a major push for gun control in his second term without it.
Obama has described the Sandy Hook shootings as the worst day of his presidency, and his comments Wednesday underlined a personal investment the father of two girls appears to have taken in the issue.
Obama said the father of one of Newtown’s victims — a 7-year-old girl named Grace — gave him one of her paintings, which now hangs in Obama’s private study near the Oval Office.
“Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace, and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now for Grace, for the 25 other innocent children and devoted educators who had so much left to give,” Obama said Wednesday in front of an audience that included the little girl’s parents at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
While the executive actions were intended to show that Obama will act on gun control even if Congress does not, the president acknowledged the most meaningful actions would have to be taken through legislation.
He said the executive proposals were “in no way a substitute” for congressional action.
The legislative path to comprehensive gun reform will be a difficult one for Obama to navigate. The NRA, which has successfully lobbied members in both parties to oppose new gun restrictions, released a brief statement reiterating its stance that guns are not the reason for gun violence.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the group said. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
The fight between Obama and the NRA also turned personal Wednesday, with a new NRA ad that accused the president of hypocrisy for having armed guards protect his daughters at school.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the ad’s narrator asks. “Then why is he ‘skeptical’ about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?”
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the video “repugnant and cowardly” and said Obama’s daughters should not be used as pawns in the political fight.
Obama aides and Democratic lawmakers have suggested Obama might throw his campaign apparatus behind the gun effort.
“The president has the most exciting campaign apparatus ever built,” former spokesman Robert Gibbs told MSNBC. “It’s time to turn that loose. It’s time to turn that loose for something more than just an election. If the NRA’s got a list, then Obama for America has a bigger list, and it is time to get activated again.”
— Mike Lillis and Amie Parnes contributed.