U.S. President Barack Obama, left, unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama‘s package of gun-control measures immediately reignited longstanding divisions between liberal members of his own party eager to identify with a clampdown on guns and more-centrist Democrats who pride themselves on defending gun rights, underscoring the fraught path ahead.

President Obama began his push for the most sweeping changes to gun laws in nearly two decades, including banning the sale of certain semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Laura Meckler has details on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.

Girding for resistance, the president in his Wednesday address called for people across the country to lobby their lawmakers to overcome certain opposition from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights group, and its supporters. “I will put everything I’ve got into this,” Mr. Obama said. “But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.”

During a press conference Wednesday, President Obama called his gun control proposals ‘common sense measures’ and emphasized his support of the Second Amendment, saying, “I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership.” Photo: Getty Images.

Of Mr. Obama’s three major legislative proposals unveiled Wednesday, prospects may be highest in the Democratic-controlled Senate for a measure to require background checks for all gun buyers, not only for those buying from federally licensed dealers, as is now the law. The White House signaled that its top priority was to expand the checks, which screens for people barred by a criminal record, a history of mental illness or other reasons from buying guns, and some Republicans showed openness to the idea.

But Mr. Obama’s two other major proposals—to ban a set of semiautomatic rifles sometimes called assault weapons, as well as to bar high-capacity ammunition magazines—face a tougher path in the Senate.

None of the measures has good odds of passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) on Wednesday took a noncommittal stance. His spokesman said that House committees would review the package, “and if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that.”

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Mr. Obama issued his legislative proposals at a White House event attended by children who wrote to him after the shooting spree at a Connecticut elementary school last month that left 26 dead, as well as the suspected gunman and his mother, and ignited the first major push for gun regulations in nearly two decades.

Mr. Obama also on Wednesday set in motion 23 executive actions, most of them aimed at filling holes in law enforcement, mental health and school safety. They included efforts to push agencies to submit more mental-health records into the existing background-check system, to allow federal research into gun violence and provide funding for schools to hire law-enforcement officers.

David Keene, president of the NRA, said in an interview that the organization isn’t ruling out some areas of cooperation with the administration. He cited gun-safety programs and increased prosecution of gun crimes, such as supplying false information for background checks, both of which Mr. Obama addressed in his executive actions.

Mr. Keene said, however, that the White House proposals sound like Vice President Joe Biden‘s “lifelong dream to put all his antigun ideas into one big stewpot.” Mr. Biden led a White House task force that developed the recommendations in the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings.

Federal law prohibits the sale of firearms to convicted felons, recently convicted drug users, people adjudicated to be mentally unfit and others, and state and federal agencies are supposed to report the names of these people to national databases. But only federally licensed dealers are required to use the background-check system.

Mr. Obama would require background checks for private sales between individuals, including those at gun shows and via the Internet. Expanding the checks is the “single most important thing we can do,” a senior administration official said.

For most of his presidency, Mr. Obama declined to spend political capital on the gun issue, with aides citing political opposition in Congress. The president also declined to take the sort of executive actions that he took on Wednesday, even as the White House shaped a public campaign around other unilateral moves that couldn’t wait for Congress. But the incident in Connecticut appears to have shaken the president, who is also past his last election and can put aside fears of a voter backlash.

The focus turned to the Senate, where action is most likely to occur first, and to prospects for an expansion of background checks of gun buyers. “If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime, universal background checks is at the sweet spot,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) said.

His assessment was bolstered when an aide to Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) said Wednesday that the senator is “open to considering” mandatory background checks for all gun sales. “We must acknowledge that with rights come responsibilities,” Mr. Coburn said. “Gun owners must exercise personal responsibility and do everything in their power to prevent firearms and ammunition from falling into the wrong hands.”

That follows support from another Republican, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who said Sunday on Fox News that she was “willing to listen” to proposals for universal background checks.

Senate Democratic leaders were hoping that more Republican support would materialize and create political cover for centrist Democrats who traditionally defend gun rights to sign on to the background-check measure.

One such lawmaker, Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), who faces re-election in 2014, issued a wary statement Wednesday, saying that “before passing new laws, we need a thoughtful debate that respects responsible, law-abiding gun owners in Montana instead of a one-size-fits-all directive from Washington.” There were no immediate signs of support from Democrats up for re-election next year in Arkansas, Alaska or several other states with strong gun-rights traditions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), a longtime gun-rights supporter, promised the Senate would consider legislation addressing gun violence early this year but declined to endorse any of Mr. Obama’s specific proposals.

Gun-control advocates say it is important to require background checks for all sales, because people who know they are prohibited from buying guns can easily avoid licensed dealers and buy from a seller who isn’t subject to the screening requirement.

Researchers said that three surveys, two from the 1990s and one from 2004, showed that some 80% of gun offenders acquired their weapons through a private transaction of some sort, rather than from a licensed dealer. “Go to a gun show and you’ll see individuals who advertise with their little signs: ‘No background check; no questions asked; cash and carry.’ They don’t want to know anything,” said researcher Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The NRA in the past has opposed an expansion of background checks, but Mr. Keene on Wednesday said the group hadn’t studied Mr. Obama’s version and didn’t yet have a position on it. Universal background checks wouldn’t have stopped the mass shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where the suspected assailant took guns from his mother.

By contrast, banning ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds, as Mr. Obama has proposed, would have a greater impact on so-called mass shootings, where the killing efficiency of a lone gunman would be reduced, according to James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University who studies crime.

When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson Arizona in 2011, the gunman was tackled by onlookers when he struggled to reload. Advocates of the ammunition restriction say if such shooters were forced to reload more often, it would slow them down significantly and make such attacks less deadly.

Mr. Obama’s next steps were unclear. A White House official said the president and vice president would travel to bring attention to this issue and would continue to work with outside groups.

—Evan Perez, Alicia Mundy and Devlin Barrett contributed to this article.

Write to Laura Meckler at [email protected], Peter Nicholas at [email protected] and Colleen McCain Nelson at [email protected]

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