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Obama marks Newtown school shooting anniversary with call for gun control

A sign is pictured in the Sandy Hook area of Newtown, Connecticut December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
A sign is pictured in the Sandy Hook area of Newtown, Connecticut December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama marked the anniversary of the Newtown school shootings on Saturday by calling for tighter gun control and expanded mental healthcare, and by lighting 26 candles to commemorate the victims.

"We haven't yet done enough to make our communities and our country safer," the president said in his weekly address. "We have to do more to keep dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun so easily. We have to do more to heal troubled minds."

Obama did not mention the shooting at a Colorado high school on Friday where a student armed with a shotgun wounded at least two classmates before apparently taking his own life. The president's weekly remarks are recorded in advance.

At the White House, the president and Michelle Obama lit one candle for each of the 20 children and six school workers who died at a Connecticut elementary school a year ago, then stood and faced the candles with hands clasped in front of them. The ceremony unfolded in silence.

Despite a concerted push by the president and Vice President Joe Biden to tighten gun laws, legislation that would have stiffened background checks for gun sales and banned rapid-firing "assault" weapons died in Congress in the face of the powerful gun lobby.

Polls showed that more than 80 percent of Americans supported expanded background checks, but opponents of the legislation argued it is essential to hold the line on protecting Americans' right to keep and bear arms guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Frustrated on the legislative front, the administration began taking executive actions aimed at preventing gun violence. Steps have included making it easier for federal agencies to share information about people with a history of mental illness who should be prevented from buying a gun.

State legislatures have been more aggressive in enacting gun control legislation, but some of those measures have faced a backlash. Colorado passed gun control measures, then gun rights activists used recall elections to oust two state senators who backed them.

The White House on Tuesday proposed spending $130 million to help teachers and other people who work with youth recognize the signs of mental illness and help people get treatment, but Congress has not yet allocated those funds.

So the administration will spend $50 million from its Health and Human Services budget to help community health centers hire more mental health professionals and provide more services and another $50 million from the Agriculture Department budget to improve mental health facilities in rural areas, the White House said.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Vicki Allen)

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