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January 15, 2013 9:01 am
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama endorsed contentious bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as stricter background checks for gun buyers – but conceded he may not win approval of all in a Congress reluctant to tighten restrictions.
Mr Obama said lawmakers would have to “examine their own conscience” as they tackle gun control legislation after the horrifying Connecticut school shootings last month. The influential National Rifle Association and other pro-gun rights groups are fiercely opposed to tighter gun laws.
Mr Obama spoke on Monday at a White House news conference one month after the December 14 elementary school rampage, which ignited a national discussion on preventing mass shootings. The 20-year-old shooter killed 20 children and six adults at the school before committing suicide.
The president said he would unveil a comprehensive road map for curbing gun violence within days, based on recommendations from vice-president Joe Biden, who spent weeks holding talks with gun victims’ groups, the entertainment and video game industries and gun owner advocacy groups.
Mr Obama’s plan is expected to include both legislative proposals and steps that he can implement by himself using his presidential powers.
But the most sweeping and contentious elements – including an assault weapons ban – will require approval from a Congress that has been loath to tackle gun control legislation for more than a decade. The politically powerful NRA has vowed to fight any measure that would limit access to guns and ammunition, a hardline position that could sway some Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Despite the opposition, Mr Obama said he would “vigorously pursue” measures to tighten gun laws.
The president’s new resolve follows a lack of movement in tackling gun violence throughout much of his first term, despite several high-profile shootings. He called the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown the worst day of his presidency and vowed to take action.
Parents of the slain Connecticut children added their voices to the national dialogue on Monday. Members of the newly-formed group Sandy Hook Promise called for an open-minded discussion about a range of issues, including guns, mental health and safety in schools and other public places.
Lawmakers in New York state pressed ahead with what would be the nation’s first gun control measure approved since the school shootings. Among the items in a tentative agreement in the state legislature are further restrictions on the state’s ban on assault weapons, limits on the size of magazines to seven bullets, down from the current 10, and more stringent background checks for sales.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reached a deal on Monday night with legislative leaders and the state Senate passed the law, which then moved to the Assembly.
The provisions also would create a mandatory police registry of assault weapons and a more powerful tool to require the reporting of mentally ill people who say they intend to use a gun illegally.
White House officials believe moving swiftly on gun proposals at a national level, before the shock over the Newtown shooting fades, gives Mr Obama the best chance to get his proposals through Congress.
Officials said Mr Obama and Mr Biden met on Monday afternoon to discuss the vice-president’s recommendations. Ahead of that meeting, Mr Biden huddled with a dozen House Democrats who have formed their own gun violence task force and whose political muscle will be needed to push legislation through Congress.
The president, without mentioning the NRA, said some gun rights groups have “a pretty effective way of ginning up fear on the part of gun owners that somehow the federal government’s about to take all your guns away”.
Seeking to ease those fears, Mr Obama insisted that responsible gun owners who have weapons for protection or hunting “don't have anything to worry about” under the proposals he will push.
The NRA and other pro-gun groups insist that gun control conflicts with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. Others say the country’s founders more than two centuries ago could not have imagined the kind of high-powered guns available now.
The assault weapons ban, which Obama has long supported, is expected to face the toughest road. Congress passed a 10-year ban on high-grade military-style weapons in 1994, but supporters did not have the votes to renew it once it expired in 2004.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, on Friday predicted that a ban might win Senate approval but he doubted it could pass in the Republican-led House.
Mr Obama will also need congressional help to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines, like the ones used by the Newtown shooter, and to require background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a gun. Some gun control advocates, including The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, are urging Obama to make broader background checks his top priority, believing it has the best chance of winning congressional approval.
The Brady Campaign said some 40 per cent of gun sales happen with no background checks, such as at gun shows and by private sellers over the internet or through classified ads.
Among the executive actions Mr Biden is believed to have recommended to Mr Obama are tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks, elevating gun trafficking to a felony charge and ending limits that make it harder for the federal government to research gun violence.
The president’s proposals are also expected to include steps for improving school safety and mental healthcare, as well as recommendations for addressing violence in entertainment and video games. Pro-gun rights groups, including the NRA, have long insisted that insufficient mental healthcare and violent images are more to blame for mass shootings than the availability of guns.
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