In Minneapolis, Obama Presses Case for Tougher Gun Laws

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MINNEAPOLIS -- President Obama traveled to the nation's heartland to press his case for tougher gun laws on Monday, even as evidence mounted in Washington that expanded background checks on gun sales may emerge as a legislative compromise in the bitterly divisive cultural debate.

In a city once called "Murder-apolis" because of its homicide rate in the 1990s, the president cited its successful gun violence prevention efforts as evidence that new national laws are needed to reduce the number of shootings across the country.

"The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it's important," Mr. Obama said, standing in front of a sea of police officers and sheriff's deputies at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center.

Mr. Obama has called for Congress to pass a series of measures, including a ban on the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and an expansion of the system of criminal background checks that currently covers only about 60 percent of gun sales.

At the event, Mr. Obama declared "universal background checks" to be supported by the "vast majority of Americans" and called for quick passage in Congress of legislation expanding their reach. "There's no reason why we can't get that done," he told the gathering of law enforcement officials.

But the president set a different political standard for a potential assault weapons ban, saying only that it "deserves a vote in Congress because weapons of war have no place on our streets."

White House aides again said Monday that the president was pushing for all three measures, along with changes to the nation's mental health system. But top lawmakers in Congress and gun control advocacy organizations appear nervous about the political chances of an assault weapons ban and eager to push for a better background check system.

"There definitely seems to be a significant convergence around the idea of universal background checks," said Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, though, he added: "I think there is still a significant outcry on the part of the American public to talk about assault weapons."

On Sunday, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he may not even personally support an assault weapons ban, though he promised that senators would get a chance to vote on it. And during the Super Bowl on Sunday, a central gun control group broadcast a television advertisement in Washington focused exclusively on pushing for better background checks.

The ad, from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, pointed out that the National Rifle Association once supported such checks. The ad concludes with a child saying, "America can do this. For us. Please."

The focus on background checks reflects a broad political calculation in Washington that there is more public support for requiring background checks than for limits on guns and ammunition. A recent New York Times/CBS News survey found that 92 percent of those polled supported broader background checks.

The same survey found that 53 percent support a ban on some semiautomatic weapons, and that 63 percent would support limits on magazines.

John Feinblatt, a top adviser to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, said it was "widely acknowledged" that an effective assault weapons ban would be a tougher fight. He compared the background check system with an airport that has two lines -- one with security and one without.

"That's pretty much the system that we have," Mr. Feinblatt said.

But some advocates of tougher gun laws say that Mr. Obama and his allies in Congress should not give up on pushing for all three measures, regardless of the opposition that the measures are likely to face from the N.R.A. and other gun rights groups.

R. T. Rybak Jr., the mayor of Minneapolis, mocked politicians in Washington who are unwilling to support an assault weapons ban.

"Oh, it's not going to pass," Mr. Rybak said. "Well, guess what? People are dying out here, and I'm not satisfied with the lame kind of response that we've gotten from some of the people in Washington who look at this like some kind of game."

Mr. Rybak, a Democrat, said he would not be satisfied by a compromise on gun control measures that left assault weapons alone and only focused on background checks.

"I don't think any of us should accept anything other than complete effort and knocking off the political wimpsmanship that I think too often takes place around these issues," he said. "Get a spine. Get a backbone, because people are losing their lives."

In the 1990s, Minneapolis experienced an explosion of drug- and gang-related violence, which led to a series of local measures aimed at reducing gun violence that have brought down the city's murder rate.

The city has developed programs aimed at rehabilitation for young people who have committed violent crimes. And its leaders are pushing for faster and more comprehensive state background checks for people buying guns.

Aides said Mr. Obama met privately with law enforcement officials, as well as state and local political officials and community leaders responsible for those efforts before making remarks Monday afternoon.

Among the officials Mr. Obama met were Governor Mark Dayton; Mr. Rybak; Janeé Harteau, the Minneapolis police chief; and Richard Stanek, the sheriff of Hennepin County. Eric Holder, the attorney general, also attended the meeting.

Before the meeting started, Mr. Rybak praised the president.

"We just have tremendous admiration for you carrying a tough political load," the mayor said, adding, "we still need common-sense law changes in Washington."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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