President Barack Obama called for "common sense" gun restrictions in the aftermath of last week's mass killing in Aurora, Colo., in a speech to a major civil rights group Wednesday evening.
Addressing the National Urban League's annual conference in New Orleans, the president said he supported the right to own firearms, but called on Congress to restrict the purchase of assault weapons. Obama pressed for background checks to prevent mentally unbalanced people from buying guns. He said such regulations "shouldn't be controversial. They should be common sense."
Just after midnight on Friday, a gunman opened fire in a packed movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58. The massacre added a fresh spotlight to the gun control debate.
"Our hearts break for the victims of the massacre in Aurora," Obama said. "We also pray for the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our cities across our country every single day. For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down in the street in Atlanta, or here in New Orleans.
"We have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there's a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill," he said. "We should leave no stone unturned and recognize that we have no greater mission that keeping our young people safe."
Democratic leaders in the House said Wednesday that a ban on assault weapons was unlikely to pass.
The president also formally announced a new program aimed at improving educational outcomes for African American students. The initiative, to be signed into law on Thursday, will coordinate the actions of several federal agencies and is designed to boost high school and college graduation rates.
Obama won big applause when he mentioned his administration's increased funding to historically black colleges and universities.
"Don't cheer and then you didn't do your homework," he teased the audience. "You're competing against young people in Beijing and Bangalore. They're not hanging out. They're not getting over. They're not playing video games. They're not watching 'Real Housewives.'"
"That wasn't in my prepared remarks," Obama quipped.
African Americans will again be a key bloc for Obama in several swing states. A report from the Urban League released last week said that if African American turnout dips from 2008's record numbers to the 2004 levels, the president will struggle mightily in Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Obama trails Mitt Romney with white voters by double-digits in national polls, making black turnout even more important.
Obama did not attend the NAACP annual conference in Houston earlier this month, prompting some concern that he was taking his robust support among African Americans for granted. In 2008, Obama won 96 percent of the African American vote.