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Obama appeals for 'common sense' on gun measures

The president says Congress is reaching consensus in favor of expanding background checks. He sounds less optimistic about banning assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

February 04, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama greets Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau after delivering a speech about proposed gun control measures.
President Obama greets Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau after delivering… (Ben Garvin, Getty Images )

MINNEAPOLIS — With police officers and troopers in uniform arrayed behind him, President Obama on Monday pitched his proposals to curtail gun violence with an appeal for "common sense" and bipartisanship, even as he downplayed the prospects for key parts of his plan.

Speaking to law enforcement officials at a Minneapolis police facility, Obama said he saw a consensus emerging on Capitol Hill in favor of expanding background checks to all gun buyers, one of three core proposals in the plan he unveiled after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Eliminating loopholes that allow sales without such checks at gun shows or by private dealers has broad public support and growing momentum in Congress, Obama said.

"There's no reason why we can't get that done. That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. It's not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is a smart idea," he said.

But the president was not as upbeat about two other elements of his proposal — reinstating bans on assault weapons and on high-capacity magazines. Rather than calling for their passage, Obama merely said the measures deserved "a vote in Congress."

Obama's emphasis was a telling reflection of where the gun debate has gone in seven weeks since a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults with an assault weapon in the Connecticut school. Though Democrats in Congress have pressed the assault weapons and ammunition bans — previous versions of which expired in 2004 — most Republicans remain firmly opposed.

An expansion of the background check system, which reviews records to ensure guns are not sold to felons and the mentally unstable, is increasingly seen as a more viable step.

Legislation in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, is likely to focus on universal background checks. Four senators — Republicans Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Charles E. Schumer of New York — are working to draft legislative language.

In the Republican-led House, any gun legislation will face serious obstacles. But notably, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the party's vice presidential candidate last year, has indicated he is open to strengthening the background check system. House leadership has otherwise avoided discussing the issue in detail.

The shifting momentum was visible this weekend when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a longtime backer of gun rights, said he was likely to support the measure. Tellingly, he said only that he would take a look at the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans.

When Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the coalition backed by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, ran an ad during the Super Bowl in the Washington area, it focused on one issue: background checks.

Mark Glaze, the group's director, said a ban on assault weapons and large magazines "is a very important part of the gun solution, but it's also the hardest part to pass." He said an expansion of background checks "is the biggest policy fix and happens to have the best politics."

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden continue to advocate an assault weapons ban. "Our law enforcement officers should never be outgunned on the streets," Obama said Monday.

The president spoke after holding a private round-table discussion with law enforcement and local leaders at the Minneapolis police special operations center. The visit to this Democratic city was his first outing outside Washington to advocate for his gun measures — the informal launch of the bully pulpit campaign he's vowed to wage on behalf of what he has made a top priority.

The White House picked Minneapolis for the backdrop because its law enforcement officials and politicians have called for better background checks and instituted programs to curb gun violence.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who campaigned for Obama's reelection, co-hosted a regional gun summit last month, and Hennepin County Sheriff Richard W. Stanek, a Republican, is leading sheriffs who are pushing state legislators to improve the database used in background checks run on gun buyers.

After gun violence involving young people rose nearly a decade ago, the city instituted a comprehensive violence prevention program that emphasized mentoring for young people, rehabilitation and other community programs. Local officials credit the initiative with helping reduce gun-related incidents involving young people.

Obama said the city's focus on problem-solving was one that should prevail in Washington.

"We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something," he said.

Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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