President Barack Obama put pressure on Congress Monday to quickly pass legislation ensuring universal background checks for all gun purchases, while also demanding votes be held on bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Obama’s emphasis on background checks seems to reflect the reality that the assault weapons ban doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, while support for universal background checks enjoys extremely high support in public opinion polls.
“The vast majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, support requiring criminal background checks for anyone trying to buy a gun,” Obama said in Minneapolis, standing in front of law enforcement officials.
He appeared to take a veiled shot at the National Rifle Association, which has reversed its support for ending background-check loopholes despite polls showing that gun owners broadly support such a law.
“If we’ve got lobbyists in Washington claiming to speak for gun owners, saying something different, we need to go to the source and reach out to people directly,” the president said. “We can’t allow those filters to get in the way of common sense.”
Obama said that ultimately what happens depends on Americans demanding action from Congress.
“Tell them now is the time for action, that we’re not going to wait until the next Newtown or the next Aurora, we’re not going to wait until after we lose more innocent Americans on street corners all across the country, not going to wait until somebody else’s father or son are murdered,” he said, growing more emotional as he spoke.
Obama also said there should be a federal law against people buying guns legally and then selling them to criminals. He noted that both Democrats and Republicans are working on legislation that would outlaw such trafficking.
He didn’t drop his support for an assault weapons ban or a ban on magazines holding more than 10 bullets, but he seemed less sure of passage.
“That deserves a vote in Congress, because weapons of war have no place on our streets or in our schools or threatening our law enforcement officers,” he said. He noted that the Tucson, Ariz., shooter was able to fire 33 rounds in 15 seconds because he had that many bullets in his clip. Obama argued that some of the six people killed there may have survived if such a clip had been banned.
Obama also urged the Senate to confirm a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for the first time in six years. Obama has nominated Minnesota U.S. Attorney Todd Jones for the post. He also wants Congress provide resources for states to keep more police officers on the beat and to improve access to mental health treatment.
Separately Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined a group of college presidents to urge Congress to pass gun violence legislation swiftly.
“This is a movement whose time has come,” Duncan said. “If we refuse to act now, I don’t know if we will ever act. Sometimes the time picks you, sometimes you pick the time.”
Duncan, who grew up in Chicago’s notoriously violent South Side, recalled several childhood friends who died from gun violence. As chief of the Chicago Public School system, Duncan said the city buried a child dead from gun violence every two weeks.
Duncan said that in a phone conversation with Obama on Sunday evening, the president affirmed his commitment to press Congress to act quickly, saying he would do “whatever we can do to make this happen.”
But Duncan emphasized the importance of grass-roots efforts in moving any gun violence legislation through Congress.
“Let me be very, very clear,” Duncan said. “Like many things, if this is Washington trying to drive it by itself, this thing doesn’t go very far.”
Since the December elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., 350 college presidents have launched the College Presidents for Gun Safety coalition, demanding that lawmakers and policymakers take concrete steps to prevent gun violence.
In an open letter to Congress, the group called for ending the gun show loophole, reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and establishing consumer safety standards for all guns. It also stated its opposition to legislation that some states have passed allowing guns on campuses.
Lauren Smith contributed to this report.