WASHINGTON -- In making his case last week for tighter controls on gun ownership, President Barack Obama turned to the document most often cited by firearms advocates in defense of gun rights -- the Constitution.
By doing so, Mr. Obama sought to turn a perceived political weakness -- his image as an aloof intellectual -- into a strength, and, at the same time, to turn a perceived strength of gun advocates -- the constitutional right to bear arms -- into a potential weakness.
Citing a series of mass shootings, Mr. Obama listed several amendments, as well as the defining phrase of the Declaration of Independence, to argue that the right to bear arms should not compromise other rights.
"We have the right to worship freely and safely -- that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin," Mr. Obama said in outlining his proposals Wednesday. "The right to assemble peacefully -- that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado."
Mr. Obama added that "that most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were "denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine [Colo.] and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate."
"All the families who never imagined they'd lose a loved one to a bullet, those rights are at stake," he said. "We're responsible."
Mr. Obama, a former University of Chicago constitutional law lecturer, has been forced at times to defend the legality of his efforts, in particular the health care law he secured nearly three years ago. While his audience in the past legal skirmishes was Congress or the Supreme Court, Mr. Obama aimed beyond the Beltway on Wednesday to try to assure Americans that his proposals on guns amount to a modest approach to a societal problem.
Polls show that a majority of the electorate shares his views. But he warned that those who do must apply pressure to interest groups and members of Congress. "The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Mr. Obama said before an audience that included victims of gun violence and their families, including parents of children killed last month in Newtown, Conn.
The president added that that "doesn't just mean from certain parts of the country" -- the liberal states and enclaves where gun control has the most support. "We're going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important," he said.
His challenge became evident immediately, as a number of congressional Republicans from just the kind of conservative districts that Mr. Obama referred to issued statements denouncing his plans.
Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp said in a statement that "the Second Amendment is non-negotiable."
"The right to bear arms is a right, despite President Obama's disdain for the Second Amendment and the Constitution's limits on his power," he said. "Congress must stand firm for the entirety of the Constitution."
Other Republicans followed suit, citing the Second Amendment in each case.
But Mr. Obama made clear Wednesday that he is eager to have an argument on constitutional grounds over whether a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as other elements of his gun-control package, is legal.
At times in his first term, Mr. Obama has been criticized for sounding too much like a seminar leader at moments of ideologically charged and emotional debate. His penchant for discursive explanations has bothered no constituency more than his base, whose members see in his sometimes-professorial tone a lack of passion for the cause at hand.
At the start of his months-long pursuit of universal health care legislation, Mr. Obama cited the need to "bend the cost curve" of entitlement spending as a chief rationale for the bill. Mr. Obama's liberal supporters, in particular, hoped for an argument based on the injustice that such a wealthy nation could have so many unprotected by health insurance. He made that point more often, and usually in appearances outside Washington, toward the end of the long effort.
But Mr. Obama has begun his push for a broad package of gun-control measures with more emotion, starting with the tears he shed publicly in the raw aftermath of the Newtown shooting, which killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.