WASHINGTON — In making his case Wednesday for tighter controls on gun ownership, President Obama turned to the document most often cited by firearms advocates in defense of gun rights: the Constitution.
By doing so, he sought to turn a perceived strength of gun advocates — the constitutional right to bear arms — into a potential weakness.
Citing a series of mass shootings, Obama listed several amendments and the defining phrase of the Declaration of Independence to argue that the right to bear arms should not compromise other rights.
“We have the right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin,” Obama said. “The right to assemble peacefully — that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.”
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He added that “that most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were “denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high-school students at Columbine and elementary-school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate.”
“All the families who never imagined they’d lose a loved one to a bullet, those rights are at stake,” he said. “We’re responsible.”
Obama, a former constitutional-law lecturer at the University of Chicago, on Wednesday tried to assure Americans that his proposals on guns amount to a modest approach to a societal problem.
Polls show that a majority of the electorate shares his views. He said that those who do share his views must apply pressure to interest groups and members of Congress.
“The only way we can change is if the American people demand it,” Obama said before an audience that included victims of gun violence and their families, including parents of children killed last month in Newtown, Conn.
The president’s response to the December massacre at a Connecticut school included renewing the expired ban on sales of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, plus expanding background checks of gun buyers. Those measures will face strong opposition in Congress from most Republicans and some Democrats, making prospects for passage uncertain.
Obama acknowledged that difficulty and signaled his intention to go over the heads of lawmakers to rally public support. Vice President Joe Biden, who helped formulate the proposals, said that, after the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six school staffers dead, “the world has changed, and it’s demanding action.”
The most important parts of Obama’s plan will require congressional approval. They include a federal ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons, with fewer loopholes than the 1994 law that expired in 2004. The president also wants to reinstate an earlier ban on sales of magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.
Obama also wants to expand the background-check system to encompass all gun purchases, including the nearly 40 percent that are estimated to occur at gun shows and in private sales.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the political limits, Obama signed 23 executive orders that do not require congressional approval to enhance the tracing of weapons seized by law enforcement, provide more federal records to the background-check system and foster research into gun violence.
The price tag of the package is nearly $4.5 billion, according to the White House. Most of it — $4 billion — would subsidize the cost of keeping 15,000 police on the streets, renewing a portion of an earlier Obama jobs initiative that failed to gain approval in Congress.
Foes of gun control condemned Obama’s actions, calling them an infringement of the rights of gun owners and an ineffective response to gun violence.
Typical was the response of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who said Obama “is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) echoed its earlier criticisms of Obama. “Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the group said in a statement.
Obama began his push for a broad package of gun-control measures by referring to the Newtown massacre.
One student killed in Newtown was Grace McDonald, 7, who, Obama said Wednesday, “loved pink, and the beach, and dreamed of becoming a painter.”
He visited her family last month when he went to Newtown for a memorial service. As he left, Grace’s father, Chris, gave him one of her paintings, which hangs in his private study off the Oval Office. “Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace,” Obama said. “And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now — for Grace.”