WASHINGTON — Conceding "this will be difficult," President Barack Obama urged a reluctant Congress on Wednesday to require background checks for all gun sales and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in an emotion-laden plea to curb gun violence in America.
The president's sweeping, $500 million plan, coming one month after the school massacre in Connecticut, marks the most comprehensive effort to tighten gun laws in nearly two decades. But his proposals, most of which are opposed by the National Rifle Association, face a doubtful future in a divided Congress where Republicans control the House.
Seeking to circumvent at least some opposition, Obama signed 23 executive actions on Wednesday, including orders to make more federal data available for background checks and end a freeze on government research on gun violence. But he acknowledged that the steps he took on his own would have less impact than the broad measures requiring approval from Capitol Hill.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act," Obama said, speaking at a White House ceremony with school children and their parents. "And Congress must act soon."
The president's announcements capped a swift and wide-ranging effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to respond to the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But Obama's gun control proposals set him up for a tough political fight with Congress as he starts his second term, when he'll need Republican support to meet three looming fiscal deadlines and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
"I will put everything I've got into this, and so will Joe," the president said. "But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it."
Key congressional leaders were tepid in their response to the White House proposals.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office signaled no urgency to act, with spokesman Michael Steel saying only that "House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations. And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider gun violence legislation "early this year." But he did not endorse any of Obama's specific proposals.
The president vowed to use "whatever weight this office holds" to fight for his recommendations. He's likely to travel around the country in the coming weeks to rally public support and could engage his still-active presidential campaign operation in the effort. But he'll have to overcome a well-financed counter-effort by the NRA.
"This will be difficult," Obama acknowledged. "There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning 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."
The president, speaking in front of an audience that included families of some of those killed in Newtown, said 900 Americans had lost their lives to gun violence in the four weeks since the school shootings.
"We can't put this off any longer," Obama declared. "Every day we wait, the number will keep growing."