Barack Obama is to put the issue of tackling gun violence at the heart of his second term, placing his vice-president in charge of a task force to produce concrete proposals on the reform of firearm laws within weeks.
In an announcement that places him on a collision course with entrenched and powerful vested interests, Obama pledged on Wednesday to force action on one of the most emotive issues in the US.
Aware of the dangers of letting the emotion released by the Newtown shootings fade, he ordered the task force, under vice-president Joe Biden, to produce legislation that could be sent to Congress in January.
"This time, the words need to lead to action," he said, referring to past massacres in which a sense of public outrage failed to translate into legislation.
The gun issue was not part of Obama's election campaign in 2008 or again this year. But the killings in Connecticut of 20 small children and six teaching staff has changed the president's attitude. Teachers died trying to shield the children.
It was time for politicians, Obama said, to display "one tiny iota of courage those teachers in Newtown summoned on Friday".
Obama's comments were welcomed by the most high-profile advocate of gun control, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who only a few days ago had been scathing about the president's apparent lack of commitment.
"I was very encouraged by the president's strong statement and his announcement is an important step in the right direction. The country needs his leadership if we are going to reduce the daily bloodshed from gun violence that we have seen for too long," Bloomberg said.
Speaking at a White House press conference, Obama made it clear that the Connecticut shootings had changed the debate in the US. "I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this," Obama said. "It won't be easy, but that can't be an excuse not to try."
Proposals on tackling gun violence will be in his inauguration speech on 21 January. "There is no doubt this has to be a central issue," he said.
The task force will look at changing gun laws, improving access to mental health care and at what Obama described as the glorification of violence in American culture.
Speaking as more funerals were held in Newtown, he dismissed the idea that the American public did not have the attention span that required them to maintain support for new gun controls. "I have more confidence in the American people than that," he said.
"I hope our memories are not so short that … we don't remain passionate about it a month later," he added.
For decades, successive presidents and members of Congress from both parties have avoided dealing with the gun violence because of the opposition they were certain to face. In recent history, Bill Clinton came the closest to taking action, when he backed the legislation in 1994 that banned automatic weapons, though the Bush administration allowed this to lapse in 2004.
The photographs of victims aged only six and seven and the bravery of their teachers appears to have changed American attitudes more than earlier shooting sprees. It has also created a fear among parents and children who had wrongly assumed that at least elementary schools were safe.
At the press conference, Obama ran through a list of fatalities that had taken place across America since the Newtown shooting. Emphasising the point about how easy it is to obtain weapons, an 11-year-old boy in Utah took a handgun, though unloaded, to school on Monday, saying he wanted it to protect himself in case of a repeat of what had happened in Newtown. He has been detained on weapons charges.
The National Rifle Association, which has led opposition to almost every piece of gun legislation, issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was prepared to make "meaningful contributions". It will face questions on Friday at its first press conference since Newtown to elaborate on whether or not it will oppose measures proposed by the White House that include a ban on automatic weapons, for reducing the number of bullets in a magazine and for eliminating loopholes that allow for sales at gun shows without the same background checks as at a store.
Obama, in a direct message to the NRA, said that many of its members were mothers and fathers who had been touched by Newtown and he hoped the organisation would reflect on that.
Some senators backed by the NRA have come out in favour of change as a result of Newtown. Others who have lain low were beginning to emerge to say that the atrocity had not changed their views and they will oppose any changes to existing gun laws.
Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, who is to chair the House judiciary committee, expressed opposition to new legislation in response to Newtown. "We're going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something that I would support," Goodlatte told Roll Call.
Obama showed irritation with Congress, which has held up for years the appointment of a new director the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms, an important position in the fight against gun crime.
He bristled at the press conference when a reporter, Jake Tapper of ABC News, asked him why as president he had not tackled gun reform until now. "Where have you been?" Tapper asked. Obama, usually imperturbable in public, said he had not been "on vacation" and was busy with the economic crisis and two wars.
After a minute or two, he gathered himself and said the Newtown shooting required all Americans, himself included, to reflect.
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