President Barack Obama told the nation Wednesday to follow Colorado's lead with "practical progress" on restricting access to guns, such as comprehensive background checks.
Inside a gymnasium at the Denver Police Academy, he urged Americans to contact their federal representatives.
"If we're really going to tackle this problem seriously, then we've got to get Congress to take the next step," he said. "As soon as next week, every senator will get to vote on whether or not we should require background checks for anyone who wants to purchase a gun."
Obama pressed his views to an audience of Denver police, families of gun violence victims, and local and state politicians.
The president's usual brand of soaring rhetoric sought reconciliation on America's divided views on guns. But even as he spoke, protesters, including some Colorado sheriffs, picketed outside and decried what they said was an assault on Second Amendment rights.
In his speech, the president brought the issue to Colorado, referencing the Aurora theater shooting in July and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
"This is a state that has suffered the tragedy of two of the worst mass shootings in our history," he said. "But this is also a state that treasures its Second Amendment rights — the state of proud hunters and sportsmen.
"I'm here because I believe there doesn't have to be a conflict in reconciling these realities," he said.
Obama lauded Colorado legislators for passing three gun laws, signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last month.
One limits magazines to 15 rounds of ammunition, another requires universal background checks for all gun buyers and the third charges gun customers for the
The guests were invited, but Leon Kelly, a pastor who runs Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, veered far from the president's view.
He doubted new laws would solve the very old problem of bad guys with guns.
"We're making laws and restrictions that are going to make it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights, while we're just enhancing the black market for guns and who knows what other unintended consequences," said Kelly, a National Rifle Association member and pistol instructor.
Before the speech, Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met with local leaders, including Hickenlooper, members of Colorado's federal delegation, sportsmen and families of victims.
The president told the group he wanted to "listen and hear from all of you, having gone through the process here in Colorado, how you think we can best frame some of these issues."
He said while communities need to have strong mental health programs and effective policing, "there is also no doubt about the kind of damage that can be done if you don't have strong background checks."
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine High, said Obama particularly wanted to hear the perspectives of hunters and victims' families.
Mauser said Colorado showed it was in favor of increased gun control beginning in 2000, when 70 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 22, which requires background checks at gun shows. Further polling showed Colorado residents supported expanding background checks to all sales.
"We're very much a purple state and pro-gun state and highly educated state," Mauser said. "People understand that you can bear arms but also have restrictions at the same time. People are smart enough that you can have both."
Jane Dougherty, who was in the audience, wanted to hear about Obama's plan for federal legislation. Dougherty, of Littleton, is the sister of Mary Sherlach, who was the school psychologist killed in the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"This doesn't have to be a conflict. We can come together and be reasonable and get these laws passed and start saving lives," she said. "Background checks are just going to prevent people who shouldn't get guns from getting them."
University of Colorado political science professor Kenneth Bickers said the president's personal political mission perhaps drove Wednes-day's visit to Colorado, and one scheduled Monday in Connecticut. Twenty students and six staff members were shot to death at Sandy Hook.
"(Obama) really has to try to get something out of this issue; he's staked so much of his second-term capital on it," Bickers said. "He needs to recapture the momentum the issue had right after the shootings, and I think that's why you see him in Colorado and Connecticut."
Bickers said the visits might not help, but they won't hurt.
What could hurt, however, is U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette's comments Tuesday at a public forum organized by The Denver Post editorial board. She appeared to not know the difference between bullets and magazines. Bickers said if the president's speech and DeGette's gaffe were paired in the news of the day, that could muddle the message.
"That really hurts because here you have the congressmember in the district you're speaking in, one of the sponsors of the legislation you're trying to pass, who appears not to have a basic understanding of the gun-control issue," he said.
Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, email@example.com or twitter.com/joeybunch
Reporter Ryan Parker contributed to this story.