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Obama makes "last-ditch" push in Connecticut on gun control

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about tightening gun regulations during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado April 3,
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about tightening gun regulations during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado April 3,

By Roberta Rampton

HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, his voice rising with emotion, urged Americans to pile pressure on a reluctant Congress on Monday to approve new gun control legislation that is at risk of falling victim to Washington gridlock.

"We need a vote," he shouted.

Obama took his gun control argument to the University of Hartford, an hour's drive from the town of Newtown where 20 children and six educators were shot to death in December in a massacre that shocked Americans and spurred a fresh movement to tighten gun regulations.

Initial momentum for tougher U.S. gun control laws sought by Obama has stalled in Congress in the face of fierce lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups.

No major gun legislation has passed the U.S. Congress since 1994 and the current White House guns push is in trouble.

Obama said his three priorities in gun legislation - strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, banning military-style assault weapons and limiting ammunition clips to 10 rounds - deserve a vote in Congress.

Only the background checks portion of his proposal is still seen as possible, and even this is in doubt as Democratic senators fail to find Republican partners to help them approve it.

"The policy window is either really close to closed, or closed entirely," said John Hudak, of the Brookings Institution think tank. "In honesty, this is really a last-ditch effort by the White House."

Obama's tone grew fiery as he pushed back against the idea that what happens to gun violence legislation in Congress will either be a political victory or defeat for him.

"Connecticut, this is not about me," he said. "This is not about politics. This is about doing the right thing for all the families who are here that have been torn apart by gun violence."

NEWTOWN FAMILIES

Obama has invited 11 parents of children killed in Newtown to fly back to Washington with him aboard Air Force One after his speech. The parents are set to lobby Congress this week for gun control measures, although it may be too late to rescue major legislation sought by Obama.

While polls indicate strong support for background checks, a CBS News survey in late March showed backing for stricter gun control laws overall at 47 percent, down from 57 percent just after the Connecticut shooting.

The Senate is expected to take up gun control legislation as early as this week.

One of the more emotional moments of Monday's speech came when Nicole Hockley, who lost a son in the Newtown massacre, pleaded for action when she introduced Obama.

"Before (the shooting), at this time today, you would find me preparing dinner for my boys, helping them with homework or taking them to a karate class. My family's world changed completely that day," she said.

"Help this be the moment when real change begins," she said.

Obama pounced on the possibility that Republicans would try to use a blocking maneuver known as the filibuster to halt gun control proposals.

"Some back in Washington are already floating the idea that they might use political stunts to prevent votes on any of these reforms," said Obama. "We need a vote."

The crowd of 3,100 chanted, "We want a vote!" and the university gymnasium shook with the noise.

The president's speech will be followed up by a White House event on Tuesday with Vice President Joe Biden and law enforcement officials. Biden also is due to speak about gun control on Thursday on the MSNBC cable TV network.

First lady Michelle Obama is set to address gun control on Wednesday during a visit to Chicago, which has faced a spree of gun violence.

(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)

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