WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama urged lawmakers Thursday to remember the children gunned down in America and not "get squishy" in the face of powerful forces against gun control legislation, as supporters struggle to win over moderate Democrats before a Senate vote expected next month.
Obama, flanked by mothers who have lost their children to guns, said Washington must do something after the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., three months ago. He called out to the families of four children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School sitting in his audience.
"Shame on us if we've forgotten," Obama said. "I haven't forgotten those kids."
Obama's event comes as gun control legislation faces an uncertain future, even though some 90 percent of people say in polling they support expanded background checks.
The White House said earlier in the week that the president would advocate on behalf of his gun plan in a series of public events in coming weeks. On Thursday, Organizing for Action - the political organization birthed from the president's reelection campaign - was hosting more than 100 events to support gun control efforts across the county.
Backed by a $12 million TV advertising campaign financed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, gun control groups scheduled rallies around the country Thursday aimed at pressuring senators to back the effort.
Obama said the upcoming vote is the best chance in more than a decade to reduce gun violence. He encouraged Americans, especially gun owners, to press lawmakers home from a congressional spring break to "turn that heartbreak into something real."
"Don't get squishy because time has passed and it's not on the news every single day," Obama said.
Moderate Senate Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota are shunning Bloomberg as a meddling outsider while stressing their allegiance to their own voters' views and to gun rights. While saying they are keeping an open mind and that they support keeping guns from criminals and people with mental disorders, some moderates are avoiding specific commitments they might regret later.
Heitkamp does not face re-election next year, but Pryor and five other Senate Democrats from Republican-leaning or closely divided states do.
The heart of the Senate gun bill will be expanded requirements for federal background checks for gun buyers, the remaining primary proposal pushed by Obama and many Democrats since 20 first-graders and six women were shot to death in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has said there aren't enough votes to approve a ban on assault weapons, while prospects are uncertain for a prohibition on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
Today, the background checks apply only to sales by the nation's roughly 55,000 federally licensed gun dealers. Not covered are private transactions like those at gun shows and online. The Senate measure is still evolving as Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., use Congress' two-week recess to negotiate for additional support in both parties.
Expanding background checks to include gun show sales got 84 percent support in an Associated Press-GfK poll earlier this year. Near-universal background checks have received similar or stronger support in other national polls.
Polls in some Southern states have been comparable. March surveys by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found more than 9 in 10 people in Florida and Virginia backing expanded background checks, the same margin found by an Elon University Poll in North Carolina in February.
In his speech, the president urged Americans to find out where their member of Congress stands on background checks and other moderate changes with which 90 percent of Americans agree.
"Right now 90 percent of Americans -- 90 percent -- support background checks that will keep criminals and people who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others from buying a gun. More than 80 percent of Republicans agree. More than 80 percent of gun owners agree. Think about that," he said. "How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything? It never happens."
Obama continued, "Many other reforms are supported by clear majorities of Americans. And I ask every American to find out where your member of Congress stands on these ideas. If they're not part of that 90 percent who agree that we should make it harder for a criminal or somebody with a severe mental illness to buy a gun, then you should ask them, why not? Why are you part of the 10 percent?"
Analysts say people support more background checks because they consider it an extension of the existing system. That doesn't translate to unvarnished support from lawmakers, in part because the small but vocal minorities who oppose broader background checks and other gun restrictions tend to be driven voters that politicians are reluctant to alienate. That's the power of the NRA gun lobby.
"It's probably true that intense, single-issue gun voters have been more likely to turn out than folks who want common-sense gun laws," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group that Bloomberg helps lead. Glaze, however, said he believes that voters favoring gun restrictions have become more motivated since Newtown and other recent mass shootings.
The problems faced by gun control supporters go beyond the challenge of winning over moderate Democrats. GOP opponents are sure to force Democrats to get 60 of the Senate's 100 votes to win, and there are only 53 Democrats plus two independents who generally support them.
Also targeted by Bloomberg's ads are 10 Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, home of ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded in a mass shooting; the retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; and moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
In another indicator of hurdles facing gun control forces, the Senate voted 50-49 last week to require 60 votes for any legislation narrowing gun rights. The proposal lost because 60 votes in favor were required, but six Democrats voted for the proposal, offered by conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The gun bill also increases penalties for illegal gun sales and slightly boosts aid for school safety.
More abrupt changes like an assault weapons ban generally get slight majorities in polls. Democratic leaders decided to omit it from the Senate bill because such a provision lacks enough votes.
Photo: A gun control rally takes place in Washington, D.C. Flickr (CC)