US President Barack Obama on Wednesday launched the most sweeping effort to curb US gun violence in nearly two decades, announcing a $500 million package that sets up a fight with Congress over bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines just a month after a shooting in Connecticut killed 20 school children.
Obama also signed 23 executive orders – which require no congressional approval – requiring federal agencies to make more data available for background checks, appointing a full-time director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and directing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence.
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But the president, speaking at the White House, acknowledged the most effective actions must be taken by lawmakers.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act," Obama said. "And Congress must act soon."
The announcement promises to set up a bitter fight with a powerful pro-gun lobby that has long warned supporters that Obama wanted to take away their guns.
The US has the highest rate of gun ownership of any country in the world, and pro-gun groups see any move on gun restrictions as an offense against the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
Critics counter that the country's founding fathers never could have foreseen assault weapons more than two centuries ago, when guns were intended for the common, not individual, defense, guns were often stored in community areas and rifles fired one shot at a time.
Obama in Newtown (Photo: AFP)
"This is the land of the free and the home of the brave and always will be," Obama said, acknowledging the right to bear arms. "But we've also long realized… that with rights come responsibilities."
Emotions have been high since the Connecticut shooting, which Obama has called the worst day of his presidency. He largely ignored the issue of gun violence during his first term but appears willing to stake his second term on it now. He'll have to contend with looming fiscal issues that have threatened to push whatever he proposes aside, at least for a while.
Gun control advocates also worry that opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress will be too great to overcome.
The NRA released an online video Tuesday that called Obama an "elitist hypocrite" for having armed Secret Service agents protect his daughters at school while not committing to installing armed guards in all schools. The NRA insists that the best way to prevent more mass shootings is to give more "good guys" guns.
SWAT unit at the Connecticut shooting scene (Photo: AP)
The White House called the NRA video "repugnant and cowardly."
The public appears receptive to stronger federal action on guns, with majorities of Americans favoring a nationwide ban on military-style rapid-fire weapons, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
The poll also shows 84% of adults would like to see the establishment of a federal standard for background checks for people buying guns at gun shows.
The new poll also shows 51% said they believed laws limiting gun ownership infringe on the public's constitutional right to possess and carry firearms.
The president called for banning assault weapons and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds or fewer, and he proposed a federal statute to stop purchases of guns by buyers who are acting for others.
The president also called for a focus on universal background checks. Some 40% of gun sales take place without background checks, including those by private sellers at gun shows or over the Internet, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The president's framework is based on recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden, who led a wide-ranging task force on gun violence. Beyond the gun control measures, Biden also gave Obama suggestions for improving mental health care and addressing violent images in video games, movies and television.
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