WASHINGTON (AP) - Braced for a fight, President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled the most sweeping proposals for curbing gun violence in two decades, pressing a reluctant Congress to pass universal background checks and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like the ones used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
A month after that horrific massacre, Obama also used his presidential powers to enact 23 measures that don't require the backing of lawmakers. The president's executive actions include ordering federal agencies to make more data available for background checks, appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and directing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence.
But the president, speaking at White House ceremony, focused his attention on the divided Congress, saying only lawmakers could enact the most effective measures for preventing more mass shootings.
"To make a real and lasting difference, Congress must act," Obama said. "And Congress must act soon."
The president vowed to use "whatever weight this office holds" to press lawmakers into action on his $500 million plan. He is also calling for improvements in school safety, including putting 1,000 police officers in schools and bolstering mental health care by training more health professionals to deal with young people who may be at risk.
The National Rifle Association promptly took issue with Obama's proposals, and even supportive lawmakers said the president's gun control measures face long odds in Congress.
"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA said in a statement. "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
House Speaker John Boehner's office was non-committal to the president's package, but signaled no urgency to act on the legislative proposals. "House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. "And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said ahead of Obama's presentation that he didn't know whether an assault weapons ban could pass the Senate, but said there are some measures that can, such as improved background checks.
"There are some who say nothing will pass. I disagree with that," Leahy, D-Vt., told students at Georgetown University Law Center. "What I'm interested in is what we can get."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Obama's package "thoughtful recommendations" and said the Senate would consider legislation addressing gun violence early this year.
"The tragedy at Sandy Hook was just the latest sad reminder that we are not doing enough to protect our citizens - especially our children - from gun violence and a culture of violence, and all options should be on the table moving forward," he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus dismissed Obama's measures as "an executive power grab."
"He paid lip service to our fundamental constitutional rights," Priebus said of the president, "but took actions that disregard the Second Amendment and the legislative process."