From left to right: Hinna Zeejah, 8, Taejah Goode, 10, Julia Stokes, 11, and Grant Fritz, 8, who wrote letters to President Obama about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., watch as Obama signs executive orders outlining proposals to reduce gun violence on Jan. 16 at the White House. (Charles Dharapak / The Associated Press)
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President Obama unveiled the most sweeping set of gun-control proposals in two decades on Wednesday, a package that includes universal background checks on all gun buyers and a renewed ban on "military-style" assault weapons.
Obama also proposed restricting ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, as well as new school safety and mental health programs, all designed to prevent shootings like the one last month at an elementary school in Connecticut.
"This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe," Obama said at a White House ceremony. "This is how we will be judged."
The president and Vice President Biden — who developed the plan after a series of meetings with 229 groups involved in gun violence issues — appeared with the children who wrote letters to the White House expressing concern about gun violence.
After reading some of those letters, Obama said: "And these are our kids. This is what they're thinking about. And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for them, and shield them from harm."
Also attending were family members of victims of the Dec. 14 attack that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. "Our hearts go out to you," Biden said, saying he and Obama want to "honor the memory of your children."
Obama said no law can "prevent every senseless act," but can be valuable if it can prevent one attack. "If there is even one life that can be saved, we've got an obligation to try it," the president said.
The White House issued a written plan with four goals: Keeping guns out of the wrong hands, getting "weapons of war" off the streets, upgrading school safety, and improving mental health services.
It includes 23 executive orders that Obama plans to address immediately, without the need for approval by Congress.
Among the specific proposals:
• Keeping guns out of the wrong hands. The White House is proposing "universal background checks" designed to get at private gun sales that are not covered by the current system, which applies to federally licensed dealers. The plan also includes four executive orders designed to remove barriers to information sharing among state and federal agencies.
• Restricting "weapons of war." Obama's plan calls for limiting ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds. The document notes that the Newtown killings and the July attack in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., involved the kinds of semi-automatic weapons that were targeted by the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The administration also wants to maintain the effort to ban armor-piercing bullets.
The president is also proposing harsher punishments for gun trafficking between states, as well as federal money to help cities pay for more police officers.
In addition, Obama nominated a new leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; his previous nominee has been held up for years.
• School safety. The plan proposes money to help local school districts hire 1,000 new school resource officers and school counselors.
• Mental health. The administration is proposing Project AWARE, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education. It would be designed to reach some 750,00 people to identify mental illness early in young people and refer them for treatment. Obama said he will direct the Centers for Disease Control to step up research into the causes of violence, and ask Congress to fund research into the impact of violent video games on young minds.
It adds up to the biggest government anti-gun violence program since 1994, when Congress passed an assault weapons ban that expired 10 years later. A year earlier, Congress approved the Brady Bill, requiring background checks on gun purchasers.
Biden said he has no "illusions" about the political challenges, but the Newtown shooting has shaken the nation's conscience. "The world has changed," Biden said.
Still, gun rights supporters criticized many of the president's plans as ineffective, unconstitutional, and politically motivated. Republican Party chariman Reince Priebus said the plan amounts to "an executive power grab that may please his political base but will not solve the problems at hand."
The National Rifle Association also criticized Obama's plan, saying in a statement that "only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
Some of the proposals could face a tough time in Congress, especially in the Republican-run House.
"House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he will consider Obama's recommendations.
"However, good intentions do not necessarily make good laws," Goodlatte said. He said he wants to ensure that the proposals will "actually be meaningful in preventing the taking of innocent life and that they do not trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens to exercise their Constitutionally-guaranteed rights."
Even some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have questioned whether a new assault weapons can pass Congress.
Reid, a gun rights supporter, told a Nevada television station over the weekend that, "in the Senate, we're going to do what we think can get through the House."
Not all the dissent is Washington based.
Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry said the Obama plan would have not prevented the Newtown shootings, which Perry attributed to a "sad young man" who "was clearly haunted by demons."
"Guns require a finger to pull the trigger," said Perry, a Republican presidential candidate in 2012, who added that "the piling on by the political left and their cohorts in the media to use the massacre of little children to advance a pre-existing political agenda that would not have saved those children disgusts me personally."
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant called for state legislation making it illegal to enforce any new federal gun control measures in the state, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson reports.
Bryant said in a letter to high-ranking state officials — even before Obama's presentation — that he expected the proposals would "infringe our constitutional right to keep and bear arms as never before in American history."
But there is also plenty of support for the White House effort.
Marsha Moskowitz, a Sandy Hook resident and former bus driver who once drove some of the kids who were killed in the attack, said she "definitely" agrees with President Obama's proposals.
"I understand the Second Amendment, but there's no need for assault weapons in personal homes or for hunting," Moskowitz said. "If we can get one gun that was built to kill a mass amount of people out of someone's hands, I'm all for it."
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said he expects the families of the victims from Newtown and several other mass shootings to be very involved in the effort to push action in Congress. He noted that Bloomberg flew several of the Newtown families to Washington in his plane. The victim advocates will be only a part of the coalition, he said.
"It does take a village, and the village is ready to riot," Glaze said.
Some advocates for the mentally ill expressed cautious optimism that the nation may finally take meaningful action to repair a broken mental health system.
"It's a terrible thing that it takes terrible acts for everyone, from the public to the president, to look comprehensively at this situation," said Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia. "But we can't think in silos, such as just looking at gun control. If we leave the mental illness treatment piece out of it, we will never get to a solution."
At the White House event, Obama said he believes in Second Amendment rights to gun ownership, and knows that nearly all gun owners are law-abiding citizens. His plans, he said, are aimed "an irresponsible, law breaking few."
While not citing the NRA by name, Obama did denounce groups that gin up "fear" about a fictitious plot to take away people's guns.
Like Biden, Obama said it will be tough to get some of his proposals through Congress, but voters are also concerned about a spate of mass shootings that range from an elementary school in Connecticut to a movie theater in Colorado.
"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Obama said.