"I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms," Obama told the National Urban League convention in New Orleans in his first remarks about gun violence since Friday's the deadly shooting in Aurora, Colo.
"And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation -- that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage," he said.
"But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities," Obama told the crowd of about 3,700.
While AK-47 assault rifles are among standard infantry weapons of most armies, most gun owners would probably agree "we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing [such] weapons; that we should check someone's criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily," Obama told the civil-rights group.
"These steps shouldn't be controversial," he said. "They should be common sense."
Obama criticized Congress for opposing measures to reduce violence, "particularly when it touches on the issue of guns."
He said he would "continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction -- not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step."
This includes "improving mental-health services for troubled youth" and "instituting more effective community-policing strategies," he said.
After the speech, an Obama aide told The Wall Street Journal the administration had no plans to push the issue in any particular way because Obama recognizes the political hurdles.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney rejected the idea that tougher gun laws could have prevented the Aurora movie-theater rampage that killed 12 people and wounded 58 others, telling NBC News laws don't stop people who want to cause harm.
"Just having a law saying someone can't do a bad thing doesn't always keep a person from doing a bad thing," he said in an interview from London that aired Wednesday evening.
Obama told the Urban League that for every tragedy such as that in Aurora, "there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland."
"Every day and a half, the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater," he said.
After high-profile mass shootings, "there's talk of new reforms, and there's talk of new legislation," he said.
But "too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere."