(This post was updated Jan. 7).

More than 300 college presidents, including several from the Washington region, have signed a letter urging Congress to enact new gun controls in the aftermath of December’s elementary school massacre in Connecticut.

“For many years now, our nation’s leaders have engaged in fevered debates on higher education, yet lawmakers shy away from taking action on one issue that prevents thousands of young people from living lives of promise, let alone realizing their college dreams,” the presidents wrote in the letter, which was organized by leaders of Ogle­thorpe University and Agnes Scott College in Georgia. “That issue is gun safety.”

Among the goals in the letter: a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines; consumer-safety standards for guns, such as safety locks; and a requirement for background checks for those who buy firearms from unlicensed sellers at gun shows.

By early January, the leaders of three D.C. colleges and 17 Maryland colleges had signed the letter. Among them were T. Alan Hurwitz of Gallaudet University; Patricia A. McGuire of Trinity Washington University; Fred Bollerer of the Corcoran College of Art and Design; Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Wallace D. Loh of the University of Maryland.

There were seven signers from Virginia, a state that has seen sharp debate over gun policy. They were from private schools such as Emory & Henry, Ferrum and Sweet Briar colleges, and Washington and Lee University. As of late last week, no public university leaders in Virginia had signed.

Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee, acknowledged that it is risky for a college president to take a stand on such a polarizing political question.

“But I was moved, as many of the other signers were moved” by the Dec. 14 slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Ruscio said. “It’s probably time to make a statement — and time to declare ourselves as concerned. . . . It’s not a random issue. It’s one that goes right to the heart of things we think about on our campuses.”

Many presidents — including those from Georgetown, George Washington, American, Catholic and Howard universities — had not signed as of last week. Catholic President John Garvey said he supports the letter’s gun-control proposals but believes that society must do far more to change a culture that glamorizes violence. “This is such a big job that you can’t solve it with money or legislation,” he said. “It’s the kind of change we all have to be part of.”

Another letter, circulated by the president of Emerson College in Massachusetts, has drawn more than 200 signatures from college presidents who pledged to lead campus discussions on gun violence. Among them were the leaders of George Washington, American, Trinity Washington, Gallaudet and Johns Hopkins universities.

On Jan. 2, leaders of the Association of American Universities, which represents top research institutions, said in a statement: “We believe that strong, meaningful action needs to occur in three domains: gun control, care of the mentally ill, and the culture of our contemporary media.”

Whether the letter-writing will have any effect on Capitol Hill remains to be seen. Several local university leaders who have not signed the Oglethorpe-Agnes Scott letter declined to comment.