President Barack Obama on Wednesday launched the most sweeping effort to curb U.S. 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 actions, which require no congressional approval. But the president, speaking at the White House, acknowledged the most sweeping, effective actions must be taken by lawmakers.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act," Obama said. "And Congress must act soon." He added, "I'll put everything that I've got into this."
The president appealed to the nation's conscience, but his 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 U.S. 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 offence against the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. 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, defence, guns were often stored in community areas and rifles fired one shot at a time.
"This is the land of the free and the home of the brave, and always will be," Obama said, acknowledging the right to possess and bear firearms. "But we've also long realized ... that with rights come responsibilities."
Obama was joined by children who wrote him letters about gun violence in the weeks following the Connecticut shooting. Families of the children killed in the shooting, as well as survivors, were also in the audience.
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.
The White House called the NRA video "repugnant and cowardly."
Obama's proposals are aimed at gun violence in general, not just mass shootings. He said more than 900 Americans have been killed by guns in the month since the Connecticut shooting.
"Every day we wait, the number will keep growing," he said.