Obama takes gun campaign to Midwest

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By Mark Felsenthal

Minneapolis - President Barack Obama on Monday took his gun control campaign to Minneapolis, making a visible push for reform ahead of his State of the Union address in a state with an active hunting culture where efforts have helped curtail violence.

Obama wants to move quickly to pass laws before memories fade of the December mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.

On January 16 he proposed requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, including private sales; banning so-called assault weapons; and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

Gun control efforts face an uphill climb politically in the face of a powerful pro-gun lobby and a strong U.S. tradition of hunting and gun ownership. A right to bear arms is constitutionally guaranteed to Americans.

An effort to ban assault rifles is seen as the toughest sell among the president's proposals in a country where many Americans see gun control as an infringement of their rights and an example of government overreach.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama still supported the assault weapons ban despite lackluster backing on Capitol Hill, including from members of his own party.

“The president supports, as he long has, the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban,” Carney told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Minnesota.

The state is emblematic of the challenges Obama will face in advancing gun control in Congress.

While Minnesota's two Democratic U.S. senators have said they are sympathetic to measures to curb gun violence, the National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun-rights group, has backed all four Republicans and two of the Democrats who represent the state in the House of Representatives, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Obama's visit to Minneapolis, which in January hosted a regional gun summit led in part by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, is the Democratic president's first trip outside of Washington to promote his gun violence agenda.

After the meeting, Rybak, a Democrat, called on Congress to amend or end restrictions on the ability of federal officers to share information about guns with local law enforcement.

He urged federal lawmakers to name a permanent director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, a post that has been vacant for almost 10 years. Obama is urging Congress to confirm his nominee to the post, B. Todd Jones.

Minneapolis took steps in the mid-2000s to reduce incidents involving guns and juveniles after an outbreak of violent crimes.

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau and Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden last week. Stanek is leading a group of Minnesota sheriffs pushing for stronger background checks in the state.

“Minneapolis is a city that has taken important steps to reduce gun violence and foster a conversation in the community about what further action is needed,” a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Newtown massacre mobilized support for measures to contain access to certain guns and ammunition. Obama has put Biden in charge of a push to get Congress to pass legislation that would make it harder for people who have criminal backgrounds or are mentally unbalanced to obtain guns.

The administration has included access to mental health and an examination of the effects of violent videogames as part of its efforts to stem gun violence.

Gun-control efforts have foundered in the past despite strong public support, in part because many gun owners believe advocates of gun control oppose owning and using firearms in general.

The White House last week released a photograph of the president firing a shotgun at a clay target, evidence that the he does in fact shoot for recreation, days after Obama's remark to an interviewer that he shot skeet on occasion evoked some skepticism.

Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, and gun control is expected to feature prominently. - Reuters

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