President Obama set up the first major fight of his second term on Wednesday as he vowed to directly confront gun rights supporters and called on average Americans to back him in his bid to limit ammunition and semi-automatic firearms sales, expand background checks to all gun purchases and encourage doctors to ask certain patients whether they own guns.
Speaking little more than a month after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mr. Obama unveiled his proposals surrounded by victims’ families and four children who had written him letters fearing they or their families could be the next targets of gun violence.
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” Mr. Obama said. “This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.
“If there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life we can save, we have an obligation to try it.”
Mr. Obama signed executive directives with 23 steps that he said his administration can take without action by Congress, including better information-sharing among federal agencies, educating gun owners on safety and assuring doctors that they can legally ask patients whether they own firearms.
His proposals signal the beginning of the first major gun debate in years. If he is successful, it would be the first such legislation to pass in Washington in two decades.
But some key Democrats were cool to his ideas, and many Republicans — who control the House of Representatives — warned of a bitter fight ahead, saying Mr. Obama is disregarding the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms.
“Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. “Making matters worse is that President Obama is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress. President Obama’s frustration with our republic and the way it works doesn’t give him license to ignore the Constitution.”
Other Republicans accused Mr. Obama of interfering with the doctor-patient relationship by making clear that physicians can ask their patients about guns, especially if the patients show signs of mental illness, or have a young child or mentally ill family member at home.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s most powerful gun rights lobby, issued a statement saying Mr. Obama was on the wrong track in his response to the massacre at Newtown.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the group said. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
Doubling down, the group also released a 4½-minute online video showing media figures criticizing NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s news conference last month in which he called for more armed guards in schools. Some of Mr. LaPierre’s remarks were part of the video.
“The media speaks for elites,” a deep-voiced narrator says. “America speaks for itself.”
More pointedly, the video criticizes the president as an “elitist hypocrite” for expressing skepticism about armed guards in the nation’s schools while allowing his own daughters to be protected by armed Secret Service agents at the private school they attend.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” a male narrator asks in the video. The White House quickly condemned the comments.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the difficulty of taking on such gun rights supporters, who repeatedly have demonstrated their legislative muscle by batting away proposal after proposal. The president even predicted that he would be accused of “a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty.”
“Not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear, or higher ratings, or revenue for themselves,” he said.
Mr. Obama was joined by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who led the task force that produced the recommendations. Some of them are steps Mr. Obama could have taken at any time, such as requiring federal agencies to share more data with the national instant criminal-background check system, or stepping up prosecutions of gun crimes.
The big-ticket items, however, will require Congress to act. Those include a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; renewal of the ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles, known as the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004; and extending background checks to every firearms purchase, including those between private citizens.
Mr. Obama called on voters to put pressure on Congress.
“Ask them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?” he said.
Polls show that Americans are increasingly willing to accept laws restricting the availability of firearms in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy, although other polls show that few voters rank gun control as their most important political issue. Gun owners also are preparing by buying firearms at a record pace in the weeks since Mr. Biden began his review.
The issue of gun control joins an already crowded legislative schedule on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have three looming deficit and spending deadlines and where immigration reform has been deemed the top priority for Senate Democrats.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said committees will review Mr. Obama’s proposal but that they will wait for the Senate to take action on any legislation.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, a former D.C. police chief who attended Mr. Obama’s speech, said he thinks the congressional battle is “winnable.”
“This is it. If the slaughter of 20 babies doesn’t keep our attention, then it’s hopeless,” he said. “If somebody can walk in and shoot 6- and 7-year-olds multiple times with a high-powered weapon and we say, ‘Oh, well nothing should change,’ I don’t know what else to do.”
Mr. Obama does have plenty of allies in his corner who have pledged to work swiftly. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, plans to help roll out an updated bill to ban assault weapons — a previous ban expired in 2004 — and high-capacity clips on Thursday, and praised the president’s proposals.
“He was exactly right when he said [that] ‘weapons designed for the theater of war have no place’ in our society,” she said. “I couldn’t agree more. These weapons have one purpose: to kill the most people in the shortest amount of time possible.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has said he is unwilling to make members of his caucus take a politically unpalatable vote if the Republican-led House of Representatives will not pass the legislation.
On Wednesday, Mr. Reid said the Senate will consider a bill early in the year and that “all options should be on the table moving forward” — though he stopped short of backing any of Mr. Obama’s specific ideas.