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Obama stands firm on gun control in Minneapolis despite long odds
MINNEAPOLIS -- President Barack Obama declared Monday on his first trip outside Washington to promote gun control that a consensus is emerging for universal background checks for purchasers, though he conceded a tough road lay ahead to pass an assault weapons ban over formidable opposition in Congress.
"We should restore the ban on military-style assault weapons and a 10-round limit for magazines," Obama said in a brief speech, standing firm on his full package on gun-control measures despite long odds. Such a ban "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."
The president spoke from a special police operations center in a city once known to some as "Murderapolis" but where gun violence has dropped amid a push to address it from city leaders.
The site conveyed Obama's message that a reduction in violence can be achieved nationally, even if Americans have sharp disagreements over gun control. That includes among members of his own party in Washington.
Suggesting he won't get all he's proposing, he said, "We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something."
The president unveiled his gun-control plans last month after the shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. Many of the proposals face tough opposition from some in Congress and from the National Rifle Association.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants to give the bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines a vote. But he will not say whether he will support either, and advocates and opponents alike predict they are unlikely to pass.
Putting the controversial measures up for a vote could put some Democratic senators in a tough spot. That includes some from conservative-leaning states who are up for re-election next year and face the prospect of voting against either gun-rights supporters or Obama and gun-control supporters in the party's base.
Reid came in for criticism for declining to stand with the president by Minneapolis' Democratic mayor, R.T. Rybak, who accompanied Obama while he was in town. "He's dancing around this issue and people are dying in this country," Rybak said of Reid on MSNBC.
Democratic lawmakers and aides, as well as lobbyists, say an assault weapons ban has the least chance of being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that is working up the legislation. A ban on high-capacity magazines is viewed as the next least likely proposal to survive, they say, though some compromise version of it might, allowing more than the 10-round maximum that Obama favors.
Likeliest to be included are universal background checks and prohibitions against gun trafficking, they say. One lobbyist said other possible terms include steps to improve record keeping on resales of guns and perhaps provisions that would make it harder for mentally ill people from obtaining firearms.
"The good news is that we're starting to see a consensus emerge about the action Congress needs to take," Obama said. "The vast majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, support requiring criminal background checks for anyone trying to buy a gun. There's no reason why we can't get that done."
Asked last week what was likely to be in his committee's bill, committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he didn't yet know but "I don't know how anybody can be opposed to universal background checks." He added, "I think gun trafficking, you've got to be able to close that. I don't know how anybody, anybody can object to that."
Obama also was more upbeat on the prospects of universal background checks, including for purchases at gun shows.
He urged Americans to call their members of Congress to push for his entire package of stronger gun controls. "Tell them now is the time for action."
"Changing the status quo is never easy," Obama said. "This will be no exception. The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it's important, if you decide it's important, if parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, hunters and sportsmen, Americans of every background stand up and say, this time, it's got to be different. We've suffered too much pain to stand by and do nothing."
The White House says Obama is not writing off any part of his package despite the long odds for the assault weapons ban in particular before votes are scheduled or he takes his arguments on the road. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has been helping push the gun control package, said he and Obama spoke on the matter Sunday and agreed that Washington in a vacuum is unlikely to move quickly.
"If this is Washington trying to drive this by itself, it doesn't go very far," Duncan said at a meeting with college presidents who have signed on to help lobby Congress to take action to protect students.
The White House said Obama made his maiden trip on the gun control package to Minneapolis because the city has taken steps to tackle gun violence, including a push for stricter background checks. The city launched a program in 2008 aimed at providing more resources for at-risk youth and helping rehabilitate young people who have already committed crimes.
In January, Minneapolis also hosted a regional summit on gun violence for elected officials from around the Midwest. The county's sheriff, Richard Stanek, is a Republican who has been working with the White House to develop a palatable set of gun regulations, with a particular focus on strengthening background checks.
Before Monday's trip, the White House released a photo of the president skeet shooting at Camp David, the presidential retreat, which prompted more question about the president's experience with guns. White House press secretary Jay Carney said he was not aware of Obama personally owning any firearms. He said Obama has shot a gun elsewhere, although he didn't know when or if he had done so- before becoming president. "He never intended to suggest he had grown up as a hunter," Carney said.
Asked whether the president shoots skeet or trap, Carney told reporters, "I'm not an expert, and I don't think he would claim to be either." But he said of the president's shooting skill, "I think he has gotten better."
On Tuesday, four House members -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- planned to announce bipartisan legislation making gun trafficking a federal crime and strengthening penalties against people who legally buy firearms but give them to others who are barred from purchasing them, such as felons.
House GOP leaders have sent no signals that they intend to move imminently on gun legislation.
"The committees of jurisdiction will look at the issues surrounding violence in our society. And when the Senate produces a bill, we'll take a look at it," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.