Hinna Zeejah, 8, Taejah Goode, 10, Julia Stokes, 11, and Grant Fritz, 8, who wrote letters to President Barack Obama about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., watch as Mr. Obama signs executive orders today outlining proposals to reduce gun violence.
By Tracie Mauriello Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama pressed federal lawmakers Wednesday to enact stricter gun regulations while he committed to act administratively to step up enforcement of existing firearms laws and to make funding available for school districts to hire mental-health counselors and school resource officers.
The $500 million package the president presented at a news conference included 23 executive actions he said he will take that would make his plan the most comprehensive gun-control package in decades.
In addition, Mr. Obama asked Congress to approve universal background checks, ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and criminalize possession of armor-piercing bullets. He unveiled his plan 33 days after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 elementary school children and six staff members.
"When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now," the president said during his news conference. Among attendees were Chris and Lynn McDonnell, whose 7-year-old daughter Grace was killed at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The White House audience included four children from around the country who had written letters after the Newtown shooting, asking the president to help keep them and their siblings safe.
"These are our kids," Mr. Obama said. "This is our first task as a country: keeping our children safe."
Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke first and had led the task force that recommended the congressional and executive actions, said, "No one can know for certain if this senseless act could have been prevented, but we all know we have a moral obligation -- a moral obligation -- to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again."
Mr. Obama said his initiatives respect the Second Amendment while they make it harder for irresponsible law-breakers to inflict harm.
But some Republicans countered that the president should leave gun control to Congress, and that his initiatives infringed on law-abiding citizens' rights while doing little to prevent determined criminals from obtaining guns. And the National Rifle Association, a powerful force on Capitol Hill, issued a pre-emptive strike Tuesday in a Web video that called the president an "elitist hypocrite" for sending his daughters to private school protected by armed Secret Service members even as he has expressed skepticisms over calls to station police in public schools. "Are the president's kids more important than yours?" a voice on the video asks.
In a strongly worded statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney lashed out at the NRA: "Most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as pawns in a political fight," he said. "But to go so far as to make the safety of the president's children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly." Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, in Washington to attend a House Democratic Policy Committee meeting on gun control, echoed that, saying the NRA ad "struck a new low in public discourse."
"I have no illusions about what we're up against or how hard the task is in front of us, but I also have never seen the nation's conscience so shaken," Mr. Biden said at the White House. "The world has changed, and it's demanding action."
One measure in the package provides flexible funding that communities could use to station police officers in schools. Speaking on background, a senior administration official said local officials could decide whether to use the funding for police officers or mental health counselors.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that flexibility is important. "Some schools, due to their remoteness or following horrendous tragedies such as the massacre in Newtown, may decide that appropriately trained police officers are necessary," she said. "Other schools may decide instead that more school guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists are needed. These decisions should be made by individual school communities following safety audits."
Newtown schools superintendent Janet Robinson, who was among those testifying Wednesday before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, criticized some gun advocates' urging that teachers arm themselves. "Teachers are teachers," she said, "and if you think about teachers, they just love kids, and they're not going to go packing and sit on the floor and read to kids with a gun on their hip. How many little kids could get injured with inexperienced elementary school teachers walking around with guns? It's not even logical."
Ms. Robinson said her community will need time and help to heal. Children are still afraid to go to school, and teachers have requested escape ladders for classroom windows. She asked Congress to do its part to help them feel safer. "What do I say to the parents who want to be assured that when they put their children on the bus to school, they will come home? How do I protect our students without creating fortresses?" she asked. "I have heard that the measure of a society is how they treat their children, so help me give these children their futures."
Mr. Nutter, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told the same panel that fellow mayors have repeatedly expressed shock at mass shootings, and "even more frequently, many of us must cope with gun violence that occurs on the streets of our cities every day." He said Pennsylvania lacks strong gun laws, and when Philadelphia tried to pass its own, the state Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional. "That is why we need federal legislation -- comprehensive, common-sense federal legislation for all of us to be safe," he said.
"We know that preventing gun violence -- whether it is mass shootings at a school or a murder on a street corner -- will take much more than just strengthening our gun laws," he said. "We need to reverse the culture of violence in our nation, so that violent acts are not the first response for settling a difference or compensating for a wrong. We need to adequately fund our mental health system, so we can identify troubled individuals earlier and get them the help they need."
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he supported the president's efforts and expected to discuss his proposals and others in hearings at the end of this month. "No single step can end this kind of violence, but the fact that we cannot do everything that can help should not paralyze us from doing anything that can help," he told students at Georgetown University Law Center on Wednesday.
Administration officials said the initiatives grew out of a series of 22 meetings Mr. Biden held with 31 elected officials and 220 organizational representatives on all sides of the gun issue.
Kim Stolfer, chairman of Firearms Owners Against Crime, a Pennsylvania political action committee, said sufficient gun regulations are on the books already, but that the federal government has fumbled enforcement. "Nothing [in Mr. Obama's announcement] would have stopped the shooting in the school, and nothing explains why the federal government didn't do its jobs and apply current law," he said.
Mr. Stolfer, of South Fayette, said the president and his Cabinet simply want to restrict Second Amendment rights. "I don't think the speech did anything to quell the unrest in gun owners," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."
The proposals Mr. Obama made to Congress are wildly unpopular among conservatives, but the House will consider them, said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Most Republicans had little to say publicly about the president's proposal. Those who commented followed Mr. Steel's lead.
Pennsylvania's Reps. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley; Mike Kelly, R-Butler; and Glenn Thompson, R-Centre, said they would review it.
"It is critical that any legislation focuses on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals without restricting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," Mr. Rothfus said.
Mr. Kelly believes that a few of the president's proposals, particularly those aimed at improving mental health care, seem reasonable at face value, said spokeswoman Julia Thornton. But he would oppose any effort to restrict law-abiding citizens' access to guns, she said.
Mr. Thompson said there are no easy solutions to prevent violence, but that Congress has an obligation to make every effort to protect communities, especially children. He said there was room to improve public policies that address communication among law enforcement agencies and detection of mental illness. But additional gun restrictions on law-abiding citizens won't prevent future acts of mass violence, he said.
"There is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil," Mr. Obama said Wednesday. "If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, we've got an obligation to try."
Pennsylvania's Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday he had not thoroughly reviewed the president's package. "From what I know, some of them sound like common-sense things to do," the governor said, adding that ensuring public safety and promoting mental health services are top priorities.
Mr. Corbett said his upcoming state budget proposal will include a new school safety initiative aimed at enabling "schools to address individual safety needs in protecting our students and educators."
Many Republicans and pro-gun Democrats said they wanted to try to reduce violence by increasing mental health services for people at risk of behaving violently. That includes efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people diagnosed with certain mental illnesses, said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a psychologist, who has emerged as a leading GOP voice in the gun-control debate. Democrats "want to keep some guns out of the hands of all people. I'm looking at keeping all guns out of the hands of some people," he said in a phone interview.
As newly appointed chairman of the House Energy and Commerce's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Mr. Murphy plans a series of hearing with mental health experts. He wants to increase access to mental health services, ensure federal funding goes to such programs that work and keep guns away from people who aren't stable enough to possess them.