U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a $500 million program of sweeping gun-control proposals Wednesday, setting up a showdown between his government and Republican lawmakers who oppose efforts to curb firearm ownership.

Flanked by children who wrote to his office in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, Obama first announced 23 executive orders aimed at curbing gun violence.

The orders include tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks, a requirement for federal agencies to make more data available during background checks, and a call for the Centers for Disease Control to focus research on gun violence.

Obama will also appoint a full-time director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Obama signed the executive orders, which do not require Congressional approval, immediately after his news conference.

“While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every act of senseless violence, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there’s even one thing that can we can do to prevent this violence, if there’s only one thing we can do to ensure that one life that can be saved, then we have an obligation to try it,” Obama told a room full of reporters, as well as victims of gun-related violence.

In addition, he issued a number of proposals to lawmakers, saying Congress must act to reinstate the lapsed assault-weapons banand close a loophole that allows gun sales by private sellers to go ahead without background checks.

Obama also called for the maximum number of rounds in ammunition magazines to be capped at 10, as well as measures to keep gun buyers from purchasing firearms on behalf of someone else.

“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act, and Congress must act soon,” Obama said.

After the president’s news conference, Republican House Speaker Rep. John Boehner was muted in his reaction.

"House committees of jurisdiction will review these recommendations," said Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel. "And if the Senate passes a bill, we will also take a look at that."

Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, warned it could be months before gun legislation will be on the agenda. Congress is also focused on the ongoing fiscal cliff crisis, as well as immigration reform.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, lauded Obama’s “thoughtful recommendations” and suggested that the Senate would move quickly on gun-control measures.

Wednesday’s proposals come from a task force that Obama asked Vice-President Joe Biden to lead following the deadly Connecticut shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

During his consultations, Biden identified steps Obama can enforce using his executive powers, and he did just that on Wednesday. However, even some Democrats warned that any changes to legislation must be approved by Congress.

Since the Obama administration signalled its intent to move on gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shooting, stakeholders on both sides of the debate have ramped up their rhetoric, setting up a tough road ahead to get measures through Congress.

The National Rifle Association has mounted a public relations campaign in recent weeks, claiming in recent days it has enough support in Congress to stifle any efforts to change gun legislation.

"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA said in a statement after Obama's announcement. "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."

On Tuesday, the NRA released a 30-second video accusing Obama of being an “elitist hypocrite” because his daughters have Secret Service protection at school, yet he does not advocate armed guards in all of the country’s schools.

On Wednesday, a White House spokesperson called the spot “repugnant and cowardly.”

Biden, speaking before Obama at Wednesday’s press conference, acknowledged the difficult road ahead for his proposals.

“I have no allusions about what we’re up against or how hard the task is in front of us,” Biden said. “But I’ve also never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened in Sandy Hook. The world has changed and it’s demanding action.”

The Obama administration’s proposals come a day after lawmakers in New York passed the toughest gun-control legislation of any state.

On Tuesday, the New York Assembly approved by a vote of 104-43 strict measures that call for a tougher assault weapons ban and restrictions on gun and ammunition sales.

The new legislation:

  • includes measures aimed at keeping the mentally ill from owning firearms.
  • requires background checks for private sales of assault weapons to anyone other than immediate family.
  • reduces magazine capacity from 10 to seven bullets.
  • bans the online sale of assault weapons in New York.

The NRA dismissed the New York legislation in a statement, saying: “These gun control schemes have failed in the past and will have no impact on public safety and crime.”

While talk of gun-control has led to heated rhetoric in Washington, a recent poll suggests there is considerable public support for specific measures.

An Associated Press-GfK poll found 84 per cent of respondents favoured a federal standard for background checks when purchasing a firearm at a gun show. A majority of respondents also favoured a ban on military-style assault weapons.

With files from The Associated Press