WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — With his proposed gun regulations in serious jeopardy, President Obama delivered an impassioned and urgent plea here Monday evening for swift action, telling a state still shaken by the Newtown school massacre, “We’ve got to expect more from Congress.”
The call for stricter gun laws — his most forceful yet — came in a campaign-style event in front of several thousand people packed into the University of Hartford’s basketball arena. Obama recalled last December’s slaughter of 20 small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School as the toughest day of his presidency and added, “If we don’t respond to this, that will be a tough day for me, too.”
“We’ve got to expect more from ourselves,” he continued. “And we’ve got to expect more from Congress. We’ve got to believe that, you know, well, every once in a while we set politics aside and we just do what’s right.”
Obama, who met before his speech with parents of slain children, also vowed not to forget the Connecticut slayings. He wore a green bracelet, while many in the audience wore green ribbons, honoring the school’s colors.
“Newtown, we want you to know that we’re here with you,” Obama said. “We will not walk away from the promises we’ve made. We are as determined as ever to do what must be done.”
Obama’s visit to Connecticut comes at the start of a critical week on Capitol Hill that could determine the fate of his sweeping gun-control agenda, with signs that senators may be nearing a deal to expand background-check requirements but with other proposals in serious jeopardy.
“I know that some of these proposals inspire more debate than others, but each of them has the support of the majority of the American people,” Obama said. “All of them are common sense. All of them deserve a vote.”
The crowd cheered so loudly it was difficult at times to hear the president’s remarks. At one point, people interrupted Obama with chants of, “We want a vote! We want a vote! We want a vote!”
Obama ticked through each of his proposals, including universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, highlighting polls showing nine in 10 Americans are in favor of expanding background checks.
“If our democracy's working the way it’s supposed to, and 90 percent of the American people agree on something, in the wake of a tragedy, you’d think this would not be a heavy lift,” Obama said. “And yet some folks back in Washington are already floating the idea that they might use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms.”
A growing coalition of Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has warned it would filibuster gun legislation, meaning any bill would require a plurality of 60 votes rather than a simple majority to pass.
Obama is ratcheting up his efforts to somehow translate popular support for his proposals into legislative momentum. His visit here comes just days after Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) signed into state law one of the nation’s strictest firearms restrictions.
On Monday night, 11 relatives of Sandy Hook victims plan to fly to Washington with Obama aboard Air Force One so they can lobby lawmakers Tuesday, according to a White House official. The White House offered to fly them so they could attend both the president’s speech in Hartford and their meetings the next day in Washington, the official said.
The Newtown families will be joined this week in Washington by survivors and the family members of victims from mass shootings in Arizona, Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia, according to groups organizing the meetings.
Obama has made similar pleas on gun control, including an address last week in Denver, near the scene of last summer’s movie-theater shooting in Aurora.
Although the president’s push is resonating with voters, it has not yet led to momentum on Capitol Hill. Amid an intense lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, senators have yet to reach a deal on universal background checks for gun sales.
The prospects for passing his proposed bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are significantly worse, and administration officials quietly acknowledge the prohibitions are unlikely to pass.
Obama and other gun control proponents are zeroing in on the background checks proposal, which advocates argue would be the most effective of the plans because it would help keep all guns — assault weapons as well as common handguns — out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
This week, proponents are making their biggest public relations push yet to increase pressure on senators to pass expanded background checks. Vice President Biden and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. plan to deliver remarks Tuesday about reducing gun violence during an event at the White House with law enforcement officials. And on Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama will return to her home town of Chicago to give a speech about gun violence from the perspective of a mother.
Meanwhile, other gun control advocates are trying to rally the public. Parents of Sandy Hook victims appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, making the emotional case for senators to back stricter gun laws.
Nicole Hockley, referring to a photograph of her dead son, told CBS: “They need to not just look us in the eyes, but look at our children and the lost ones and see those faces, see what’s gone and remember this isn’t just about political parties. This isn’t just about careers. This is about people. And this is about making change to save people. And it’s important to remember the people you are doing this for.”
On Monday morning, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot and severely injured in 2011 during a constituent event in her Tucson district, tweeted: “What are we waiting for? I can’t remember a time when this many Americans spoke with such a united voice in favor of anything.”
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