But Vilsack said Newtown has changed the way people see the issue. "I really believe that this is a different circumstance and a different situation," Vilsack said on CNN.
Vilsack said he thinks it's possible for Americans to come together. "It's potentially a unifying conversation," he said. "The problem is that these conversations are always couched in the terms of dividing us. This could be a unifying conversation, and Lord knows we need to be unified."
Besides passing gun violence legislation, Obama also listed deficit reduction and immigration as top priorities for 2013. A big deficit reduction deal with Republicans proved elusive this month, and Obama is now hoping Senate Democratic and Republican leaders salvage a scaled-back plan that avoids tax increases for virtually all Americans.
In addition, he issued a defense of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has been mentioned as one of the leading candidates to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary.
Hagel supported the 2002 resolution approving U.S. military action in Iraq, but later became a critic of the war. He has been denounced by some conservatives for not being a strong enough ally of Israel. Also, many liberals and gay activists have banded against him for comments he made in 1998 about an openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship.
Obama, who briefly served with Hagel in the Senate, stressed that he had yet to make a decision but called Hagel a "patriot."
Hagel "served this country with valor in Vietnam," the president said. "And (he) is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job."
Obama noted that Hagel had apologized for his 14-year-old remark on gays.