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Obama in Minnesota: Americans need to push for gun violence solution

President Barack Obama speaks to Minnesota law enforcement officials, lawmakers and local leaders Monday, Feb. 2, 2013, at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center about his plan to curb gun violence. Forum News Service photo by Danielle Killey

MINNEAPOLIS - President Barack Obama says citizens must make their opinions heard on gun violence issues for change to be possible, and Monday he had the support of at least one member of an audience of law enforcement officials, lawmakers and local leaders on that point.

"We need to do our duties and have a voice in the discussion and be at the table," Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels said.

It was a sentiment Obama emphasized in his speech to more than 200 people who filled a gymnasium in the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations Center.

"We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something," he said to applause from a Democrat-heavy audience. "The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it is important."

Obama's proposals include requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, including those by private sellers that now are exempt. He said the "vast majority" of Americans, including gun owners, support background checks.

"That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea," he said.

He also called for restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

"Weapons of war have no place on our streets or in our schools or threatening our law enforcement officers," he said. "Our law enforcement officers should never be out-gunned on the streets."

Obama said the fight against gun violence has to go further than controlling weapons.

During the roughly 15-minute speech, he pushed for funding for mental health programs and to train police officers, first responders and school officials for gun-related situations.

Some of his suggested changes require Congress to take action, while he can implement others by executive order.

"There isn't an easy solution to gun violence," Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said when introducing Obama, commending the president on the steps he has taken so far.

"Changing the status quo is never easy and this will not be the exception," Obama said, but he encouraged those listening to contact their lawmakers in Washington and push for a solution.

"Tell them now is the time for action," he said. "We're not going to wait until after we lose more innocent Americans on street corners all across the country."

Recent shootings, such as one in December at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that killed 26 people, have amped up discussion about gun control legislation federally and locally.

The president announced his set of proposals Jan. 16.

The Minnesota Legislature plans to discuss gun-related proposals this week, including those that fund mental illness programs, up penalties for certain criminals who possess firearms and require detailed background checks before a weapon can be purchased.

Wyffels agreed with Obama that passing laws to offset gun violence might not be easy, at the state or federal level, but it is possible.

"I think it's going to be a process," he said. "We may not get everything, but I think we can get something."

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said the discussion is important, but gun control proposals are worrisome.

"(My constituents) overwhelmingly support the Second Amendment and are worried about the limitation of their constitutional rights," she said. "To prevent future tragedies, we must address the underlying causes of violence and understand why perpetrators do these unthinkably evil acts. The focus needs to be on making our homes, schools, and streets safer -- not advancing a political gun control agenda."

Obama said he wants to hear from those who might not back his proposals.

"It's really important for us to engage with folks that don't agree with us on everything," Obama said.

For example, he said those from urban neighborhoods likely have different experiences with guns than those in rural communities. But he said there likely is middle ground.

Republicans criticized Obama for shifting the focus away from the economy. Minnesota Republican Chairman Pat Shortridge said Obama should be in Washington focusing on other issues rather than holding events.

"While it's an honor to have the president in Minnesota, it almost seems like the campaign hasn't ended," Shortridge said in a statement. "The last thing we need in Minnesota is Washington politics. Minnesotans need jobs, a growing economy and solutions to the debt crisis that's staring us in the face, not campaign rallies."

Former Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, tweeted: "Pres Obama in town to talk guns. What about the jobs, Mr Pres? What about the economy & the billions in debt you're racking up, Mr Pres?"

The president's speech Monday was not open to the public. Before giving his remarks, he held a private discussion on gun violence with Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, U.S. senators and representatives from Minnesota and community leaders.

Obama was in Minnesota only for a few hours. Air Force One landed at 12:05 p.m. and the president was back at the airport before 3 p.m.