President Barack Obama on Wednesday proposed background checks on all gun sales and bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as part of a package of steps to reduce gun violence in the wake of the Newtown school massacre last month.
With relatives of some of the 20 children killed in the Connecticut rampage looking on, Obama signed 23 executive actions -- which don't require congressional approval -- to strengthen background checks and expand safety programs in schools.
He also called on Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, to restrict ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, and to require a background check on anyone buying a gun, whether at a store or in a private sale at an auction or convention.
Referring to the young students killed in the Newtown shootings on Dec. 14 and other victims of gun violence, Obama said the nation must do a better job of protecting its children, especially when they are in schools, shopping malls, movie theaters and other public places.
While some of the steps he proposed are given little chance of winning congressional approval in the face of the nation's powerful gun lobby, Obama said all efforts must be made to reduce chronic gun violence in the country.
"This is our first task as a society -- keeping our children safe," the president said, adding that saving even one life would make the changes he seeks worth the effort.
Republicans immediately rejected the Obama proposals as an attack on the constitutional right to bear arms.
"Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook," said a statement by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., considered an up-and-coming GOP leader. "President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence."
The powerful National Rifle Association said it would work with Congress to find what it called "real solutions to protecting America's most valuable asset -- our children."
"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA said in a statement. "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
Obama called accusations that he seeks to violate gun rights untrue, saying opponents seek to wage a campaign of intimidation and fear instead of working with him for needed changes.
"We can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale," he said.
Obama proposed legislative steps he previously has backed, such as reinstating the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, and also requested that funds be made available to help treat mental illness and provide schools with support to enhance their safety.
Vice President Joe Biden led a panel assembled by Obama to examine gun control steps after the Newtown shootings, which sparked a fierce public debate over how to prevent such mass killings.
"The world has changed, and it's demanding action," Biden said at Wednesday's White House event.
Opponents promise a political fight, with an NRA spokesman saying Tuesday that the group has experienced what he called an "unprecedented" spike in membership numbers since new calls for gun control began in the past month.
Approximately 250,000 people have joined the organization's existing 4.25 million members, according to NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
"This is in direct response to the threats and accusations coming from" Obama and other political leaders, Arulanandam said, adding that "if anyone is wondering if the American people cared about the Second Amendment ... those numbers give a very clear answer."
In addition, the NRA is receiving an influx of financial contributions, he said, adding: "This is going to be a very expensive and hard-fought fight."
However, new polls show increased public support for stronger gun control measures,and Obama called for citizens to let their elected representatives know what they think.
"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Obama said.
His executive actions signed Wednesday called for tougher enforcement of existing laws and required federal agencies to provide data for background checks.