President Obama on Sunday night pledged the remainder of his presidency to taking steps to end the string of spree shootings that have scarred the nation’s consciousness in recent years.
Addressing both the grief-stricken Newtown, Conn., residents packed into a crowded high school auditorium and an outraged nation watching the televised speech at home, the president said tragedies like the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults inside Sandy Hook Elementary must end.
“I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens,” the president said, “in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because, what choice do we have?
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage?” he said. “That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited upon our children year after year is simply the price of our freedom?”
The president stopped short of describing specific legislation, but new gun-control measures are already coming together on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are promising action in the wake of the Friday massacre in Newtown, in which a 20-year-old man armed with three semiautomatic weapons broke into a school and executed two classrooms full of children and the adults who tried to protect them.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Sunday that she would introduce a bill to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons on the first day of the next Congress in January as gun-control advocates pressure Mr. Obama to tackle the issue in the wake of the school massacre Friday.
The shooting deaths could force the president to tackle an issue that was largely on the sidelines during his first term in office as he dealt with an anemic economy, perpetual overseas tumult and a bruising battle to push his health care overhaul through Congress.
“It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession, not retroactively, but prospectively,” Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, said of her bill on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We exempt over 900 specific weapons that will not fall under the bill. But the purpose of this bill is to get … weapons of war off the streets.
“I think America is ready,” she said, adding that she thinks Mr. Obama will support the bill.
The president said in his weekly address Saturday that “we have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this. Regardless of the politics.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and a staunch gun-control advocate, said if now isn’t the time to have a serious discussion about gun control, he doesn’t know when that time is.
“How many more Columbines and Newtowns must we live through?” he said. “I am challenging President Obama, the Congress and the American public to act on our outrage and, finally, do something about this.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday” that they support reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons, which took effect in 1994 and lapsed in 2004. Other Connecticut Democrats, such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen.-elect Christopher S. Murphy, said action must be taken soon, but they were focused on the victims’ families in the immediate future.
Gun-control advocacy groups are pushing Mr. Obama hard to pursue specific policy.
Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said Sunday that the group is “tremendously disturbed” by the incident and “our feeling is that we never should have allowed our country to reach this point.”
He said the reaction to this massacre is markedly different from what he saw after mass shootings in Columbine, Colo., and Virginia Tech; the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona; and the recent killings in Aurora, Colo.
“The response to those shootings was significant, but I have never seen the outrage to what we’ve seen in the past 48 hours,” he said. “The tone of the commentary has shifted from ‘Do we do something?’ to ‘What do we do?’ The will is there right now.”
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has launched an online petition to “demand a plan” from Mr. Obama and Congress to end gun violence.
Mr. Bloomberg said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the issue should be Mr. Obama’s “No. 1 agenda.”
“He’s the president of the United States, and if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “That is roughly the number of Americans killed in the whole Vietnam War.”
A petition on the White House website to “immediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress” has received more than 120,000 signatures since Friday. The White House must respond within 30 days to petitions that acquire at least 25,000 signatures.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, Washington Republican and chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, cautioned against introducing legislation immediately.
“We need to find out what happened and what drove this individual to this place,” she said. “I think we have to be careful about new, suggesting new gun laws. We need to look at what drives a crazy person to do these kinds of actions and make sure that we’re enforcing the laws that are currently on the books. And yes, definitely, we need to do everything possible to make sure that something like this never happens again.”
The country’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings was a topic in pulpits across the country on Sunday.
Speaking to worshippers at the Washington National Cathedral, the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall announced that “enough is enough” and that it was time for the church to take up the gun-control issue and not put it down.
“What does it say about us as a society that we continue to tolerate so much violence against children?” Mr. Hall said. “To my way of thinking, the best way for us to mourn the Sandy Hook shooting is to mobilize the faith community for gun control. … Today we grieve, but soon we act.”
Gun rights advocates say the violence might have been mitigated if people in the school had been armed.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said he wished Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook, who was shot as she ran and attempted to overpower gunman Adam Lanza, had access to a rifle during the shooting spree Friday.
“Hearing the heroic stories of the principal, lunging, trying to protect. … I wish to God she had had an M-4 [carbine rifle] in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out, and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, but she takes him out, takes his head off before he kills those precious kids,” Mr. Gohmert said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, said that moves to take away assault weapons wouldn’t stop events like the one in Connecticut.
“[If] evil wants to strike, it’s going to strike,” he said. “Everybody in that school was disarmed — that’s gun control. And once [Lanza] started, there was no way to stop him. And the police didn’t get there in time for all those children and adults.”
The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has gone largely silent. The last entry on the organization’s Twitter feed was at 9:36 a.m. Friday, boasting “10 Days of NRA Giveaways — Enter today for a chance to win an auto emergency tool!”
On Dec. 13, a tweet proclaimed that the group’s Facebook page had reached 1.7 million “likes,” but the page disappeared from the online social-networking site. A spokeswoman for the group said in an email that “until the facts are thoroughly known, NRA will not have any comment.”
• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.