President Obama, in a televised address Wednesday, called on the American public to demand measures to curb gun violence. "It will not happen unless the American people demand it," he said.
"I will put everything I've got into this," the president declared. But the task will be difficult, he said, because of "pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves."
The American people have to say, "This time must be different," Obama said.
"That doesn't just mean from certain parts of the country," the president said. "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. It can't just be the usual suspects." Change will come "if parents and teachers, police officers, and pastors, if hunters and sportsman, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, 'enough.'"
Obama, who is a constitutional lawyer, presented a powerful appeal for gun curbs as a Bill of Rights issue. In a challenge to the gun lobby's interpretations of the Second Amendment and individual freedom, the president said:
"This is the land of the free, and it always will be. As Americans we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us. But we've also long recognized, as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities. Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other."
The right to worship freely and safely was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Obama said. The right to assemble peacefully was denied shoppers at a mall in Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.
"That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown; and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they'd lose a loved one to a bullet - those rights are at stake," the president said. "We're responsible."
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were joined at the event by four children who wrote to him expressing their thoughts about gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy last December in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 small children and six adults were gunned down people.
Also in the audience were the parents of 7-year-old Grace McDonald, killed in Newtown.
After quoting from the children's letters, Obama said, "Our first task as a society" is "keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change."
The president outlined a series of legislative and executive steps to address both mass shootings and "the broader epidemic of gun violence."
Obama asked Congress to immediately enact a renewed ban on military-syle assault weapons and on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and universal background checks for all gun purchases, including at gun shows and from private sellers. In addition, he said Congress should allocate substantial funding to help schools provide mental health services for students, conflict resolution and other anti-violence programs, and funding for training 5,000 additional mental health professionals
The president also detailed 23 comprehensive executive steps he is taking to give "law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence."
These include providing $150 million to school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors - areas that are often grossly understaffed, particularly in urban schools. The executive steps also include quickly implementing provisions of the Affordable Care Act to ensure that health coverage includes mental health care on an equal basis to other care.
In a dramatic windup to the event, the president personally greeted the four children who had written him letters, sat at a small desk in front of them, and signed a directive to implement these executive actions.
Photo: Obama signs order for administrative steps to end gun violence, Jan. 16 at the White House. White House photo