President Obama, and others, listens during a roundtable discussion at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, in Minneapolis, Minn. From left are, Minneapolis Police Officer Mike Kirchen, the president, and Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau. / Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP
MINNEAPOLIS - President Obama traveled on Monday to a corner of this city that has been ravaged by gun violence and called on Americans to press lawmakers to back his gun control agenda.
But even as he renewed his call for Congress to pass legislation to ban assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition clips--proposals that face stiff opposition from House Republicans and some Senate Democrats--the president put special emphasis on his proposal to establish universal background checks on all weapons sales, a measure he believes has broad support.
"We don 't have to agree on everything to agree that it's time to do something," Obama said with dozens of Minneapolis police officers and Hennepin County sheriff deputies behind him.
Obama alluded to the fact that National Rifle Association officials have said they will oppose implementing universal background checks, even though polls have shown a vast majority of Americans support the move.Both NRA President David Keene and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said last week that requiring background checks on all sales would do little to stop criminals from getting guns and would burden law-abiding citizens and promised to lobby lawmakers to oppose legislation on background checks.
"The majority of gun owners, [an] overwhelming majority of gun owners think that's a good idea," Obama said. "So if we've got lobbyists in Washington claiming to speak for gun owners saying something different, we need to go to the source and reach out to people directly. We can't allow those filters to get in the way of common sense."
The trip to the north side of Minneapolis, a city that once had such an extraordinary homicide rate that it was dubbed "Murder-apolis," marked Obama's first trip outside the Beltway to tout the gun control agenda he unveiled on Jan. 16, just over a month after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., rekindled the debate on the nation's gun laws.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat, and the city's police chief, Janee Harteau, have been vocal supporters of the president's agenda, and have been among law enforcement officials and big city politicians who have visited the White House in recent weeks to huddle with Obama and Vice President Biden on gun control.
"We just have tremendous admiration for you carrying a tough political load," Rybak told the president at the start of a roundtable meeting the president participated in at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center on Monday. Rybak added, "We still need common sense law changes in Washington."
The White House chose Minneapolis, in part, for the big policy speech because the city has made progress in reducing gun violence.
After a spike in violent crime involving youth in the mid-2000s, Minneapolis launched a youth violence initiative that is credited with a 66% decrease in the number of youths involved in gun-related incidents and a 41% drop in youth injured by gun violence over the past five years.
"When it comes to protecting our children from gun violence, you have shown that progress is possible," Obama said.
A bipartisan push by sheriffs in Minnesota to improve the state's background check system for gun buyers - including speeding up the input of felony and drug convictions, along with mental-health court orders - has also piqued administration interest.
But even as Minnesota's largest city has made progress, gun violence remains a vexing issue for law enforcement officials here.
The Minneapolis Police Department saw a 27.5% increase in the number of guns found at crime scenes in 2012.
Perhaps most confounding, said Harteau, the police chief, is pinpointing the chain of ownership of many of the weapons her police officers are recovering at crime scenes.
Harteau said that instituting universal background checks and mandating that gun owners immediately report when a weapon is stolen could be among the most effective moves that Congress can make in aiding law enforcement officials.
To that end, every time there's a crime where a gun is recovered in Minneapolis, police here now are launching a parallel investigation into the weapon, an effort to trace back the chain of custody to the original legal owner and better understand how weapons are circulating.
"With some of the guns we've recovered, we've gone back to find the original owners who say they haven't seen the guns in years or they say they've given the gun to so-and-so and the weapon has changed hands 15 times," Harteau said. "We don't know what's out there."
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