HARTFORD, Conn. — With time running out on the chance to pass gun control legislation, President Barack Obama on Monday warned Congress not to use delaying tactics against tighter regulations and told families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims that he’s “determined as ever” to honor their children with tougher laws.
Obama’s gun control proposals have run into resistance on Capitol Hill, leaving their fate in doubt. Efforts by Senate Democrats to reach compromise with Republicans over expanding required federal background checks have yet to yield an agreement, and conservatives were promising to try blocking the Senate from even beginning debate on gun control legislation.
“The day Newtown happened was the toughest day of my presidency,” Obama said in an emotional speech from Connecticut’s capital, an hour’s drive from Newtown. “But I’ve got to tell you, if we don’t respond to this, that’ll be a tough day for me too.”
Some of the Sandy Hook families are making an attempt to push through the bill. Obama met with them privately before his speech at the University of Hartford Monday evening, then brought 12 family members back to Air Force One for the trip back to Washington. The relatives want to meet with senators who’ve yet to back the legislation to encourage their support in memory of their loved ones.
“Nothing’s going to be more important in making sure that the Congress moves forward this week than hearing from them,” Obama said. His eyes teared as he described Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, saying how she asks him every night to come to her in her dreams so she can see him again.
“If there’s even one thing we can do to prevent a father from having to bury his child, isn’t that worth fighting for?” Obama asked.
Obama’s speech was interrupted repeatedly by standing ovations from the packed gymnasium. At one point, the room erupted with chants of “We want a vote!” Audience members, many wearing green ribbons in support of the victims, were stomping their feet on the bleachers and clapping their hands in unison with the chant.
“This is not about me. This is not about politics. This is about doing the right thing for all the families who are here who have been torn apart by gun violence,” Obama said, his voice rising with emotion as he shook his finger in the air.
Obama argued that lawmakers have an obligation to the children killed and other victims of gun violence to allow an up-or-down vote in the Senate. That would require 50 votes to pass, rather than a procedural maneuver some Republican senators are threatening to require 60 votes, potentially sinking the legislation.
“Some back in Washington are already floating the idea that they may use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms. Think about that. They’re not just saying they’ll vote no on ideas that almost all Americans support. They’re saying they’ll do everything they can to even prevent any votes on these provisions. They’re saying your opinion doesn’t matter. And that’s not right.
Obama rode to the speech with Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who signed sweeping gun control legislation into law Thursday with the Sandy Hook families standing behind him. But legislation in Washington faces a tougher challenge, as the nation’s memories of the shooting fade with time and the National Rifle Association wages a formidable campaign against Obama’s proposals.
Majority Leader Harry Reid brought gun control legislation to the Senate floor on Monday, though actual debate did not begin. He took the step after receiving a letter from 13 conservative Republican senators including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, saying they would use delaying tactics to try preventing lawmakers from beginning to consider the measure. Such a move takes 60 votes to overcome, a difficult hurdle in the 100-member chamber.
The conservatives said the Democratic measure would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms, citing “history’s lesson that government cannot be in all places at all times, and history’s warning about the oppression of a government that tries.”
Further underscoring the tough road ahead for the Obama-backed legislation, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that the Kentucky Republican would join the filibuster if Reid tries to bring the measure to the floor.
Obama said the vote shouldn’t be about his legacy, but about the families in Newtown who haven’t moved on to other matters.
“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. In fact, I’m here to ask you to help me show that we can get it done. We’re not forgetting.”
A group of Sandy Hook families originally planned to travel to Washington earlier on Monday, but the White House offered to give the families a ride so they could also attend Obama’s speech before their lobbying push. The White House lit up the steps of Air Force One with flood lights so photographers and television cameras could capture the image of Obama climbing the plane’s steps with the families at dusk.
Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter Ana was among the victims at Sandy Hook, held up a sign that said “Love Wins” as she walked toward the steps of Air Force One.
The families’ lobbying trip was organized by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit started by community members in the wake of the shooting. “The group is encouraging senators to come together around legislative proposals that will both save lives and respect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans,” the group said in a statement.
With time running out on negotiations, the White House is making an all-hands-on-deck push this week. Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder planned to promote their plan at the White House on Tuesday with law enforcement officials. First lady Michelle Obama planned to wade into the debate Wednesday with a speech on youth violence in her hometown of Chicago. And on Thursday, Biden was taking part in a discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with people who have different views on gun control.
Organizing for Action, the grassroots group being formed out of Obama’s re-election campaign to support his agenda, said it was launching online ads Monday asking the public to urge their senators to support background checks. The ads will target 11 senators — all Republicans — through Facebook and search engines. An OFA spokesman said the group was not disclosing the cost of the ad campaign.
Gun control is divisive in Newtown, Conn., as in the rest of the country. Not all Sandy Hook families support gun control, and even those involved with the lobbying push organized by Sandy Hook Promise are not backing the assault weapons ban. But those families are asking lawmakers to expand background checks, increase penalties for gun trafficking and limit the size of magazines.