President Barack Obama wept openly Tuesday as he delivered a forceful defense of new executive actions on gun violence, a set of modest proposals to tighten loopholes that likely face quick legal challenges and could be vulnerable to reversal by a Republican White House.
The president ran through a list of mass shootings that have happened during his time in office, and teared up as he recalled the schoolchildren gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
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“First graders in Newtown. First graders,” Obama said, pausing to collect himself. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”
Obama offered a new argument to counter gun rights enthusiasts, noting that mass shootings have taken place as Americans have tried to exercise other rights, such as attending worship services or watching a movie. The right to bear firearms is not more important than the right to worship freely or peaceably assemble, he said, and called upon Congress to be “brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies.”
“Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns. Thirty thousand. Suicides, domestic violence, gang shootouts, accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters or buried their own children,” he said, flanked in the White House East Room by family members of victims.
In making his case, Obama brushed off criticism that he did not respect the Second Amendment, citing his past as a constitutional law professor.
“No matter how many times people try to twist my words around, I taught constitutional law, I know a little bit about this. I get it,” he said. “But I also believe that we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment.”
“We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom,” Obama said.
The president also argued that common-sense safety measures used on other equipment should apply to guns as well.
“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”
“If there’s an app that can help us find a missing tablet — which happens to me often the older I get,” Obama said to laughter, “if we can do it for your iPad, there’s no reason we can’t do it with a stolen gun. If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger on a gun.”
Despite the “general consensus” for what needs to be done, and support from many gun owners, Obama acknowledged gridlock.
“I’m not on the ballot again. I’m not looking to score some points. I think we can disagree without impugning other people’s motives,” he said. “But we do have to feel a fierce sense of urgency about it. In Dr. King’s words, we need to feel the fierce urgency of now. Because people are dying and the constant excesses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice. That’s why we’re here today, not to debate the last mass shooting but to prevent the next one.”
As the details of Obama’s actions— and their limited nature — became clear, reactions of Republicans took on a tone that was more dismissive than alarm-raising. While some continued to attack Obama for going after law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights, others pooh-poohed his actions as theater.
“Rather than focus on criminals and terrorists,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”
Despite such condemnation, there’s little chance this GOP-controlled Congress can block the president’s latest gun control moves. That’s because there are no must-pass bills looming that Republicans could use as vehicles to force Democrats to undo Obama’s actions. Furthermore, Senate Democrats would likely block any movement in the Senate on individual bills. And any stand-alone legislation that managed to pass the House and Senate would surely be vetoed by Obama.
Ryan said the GOP’s best chance to overturn the executive orders is to elect a Republican president in 2016.
Gun rights advocates argue that new restrictions aren’t necessary because gun homicide rates have dropped even as gun ownership has soared. National Rifle Association used blistering language to cast the moves as a way to distract from other more pressing problems, echoing GOP lines of attack.
“Once again, President Obama has chosen to engage in political rhetoric instead of offering meaningful solutions to our nation’s pressing problems,” said NRA Legislative Action Executive Director Chris W. Cox. “Today’s event also represents an ongoing attempt to distract attention away from his lack of a coherent strategy to keep the American people safe from terrorist attacks.”
Firearms industry officials, however, had a more nuanced response. The National Shooting Sports Federation, a top trade group, applauded some elements of Obama’s package, including the completion of a long-delayed measure to include more mental health information in the federal background check system. It also cheered plans to bulk up FBI staffing to conduct background checks.
In a statement, NSSF called the new requirement to make dealers report guns that were lost or stolen in transit “misdirected,” arguing that participation in a voluntary program is already robust and, if there is going to be a requirement, the onus should be on the buyer to do the reporting.
And the new guideline about dealers licenses, NSSF said, “needs considerable clarification and raises questions about enforceability.”
Some Republican presidential candidates saw no need to parse the provisions.
“When you live by the pen, you die by the pen,” declared Sen. Ted Cruz, a top Republican presidential candidate. “And my pen’s got an eraser.”
The White House makes no bones about this possibility. That’s all the more reason, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said after the president’s speech on Tuesday, that Congress should pass a more permanent measure.
The issue of gun violence has been a perpetual presence during Obama’s presidency due to a series of mass shootings that have grabbed national headlines, perhaps none more so than the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook.
“Fort Hood, Binghamton, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, the Navy Yard, Santa Barbara, Charleston, San Bernardino. Too many,” Obama said, ticking through a list of mass shootings since the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six and injured more than a dozen more, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was in attendance in the East Room.
Despite professing an unflinching commitment to curbing gun violence, Obama and Biden have been thwarted by Congress and what Obama calls a lack of national will to change the way Americans think about guns.
Obama has issued more than 20 executive actions, including incentives for states to share background check information and directing the attorney general to review those types of individuals prohibited from having guns. But gun sales have soared, with 2015 expected to have been a record year, as Americans buy up weapons in advance of new restrictions.
Likewise, the actions rolled out on Tuesday are not expected to have a huge impact.
The measures include a more detailed definition of which gun sellers must apply for a federal dealers license — and therefore conduct background checks for all sales, in a bid to close the so-called gun show loophole. The administration is also finalizing a few other rules that were stuck in a bureaucratic backlog, including new requirements for reporting guns lost or stolen in transit, and a measure that would allow more mental health records to be submitted to the federal background check registry by removing patient privacy limits.
The FBI is also adding 230 agents devoted to processing background checks — a 50 percent increase — as it moves toward automating the system.
The series of gun-related events this week represents one of Obama’s largest pushes on gun control since the collapse of the effort that followed Sandy Hook. The White House is eager to fend off political attacks and to minimize the lobbying from pro-guns-rights groups, and so is preparing a heavy public campaign to explain his moves. On Thursday, Obama partners with CNN for an hourlong town hall to discuss gun violence in prime time.
Vice President Biden — who led the administration’s efforts to enact new gun restrictions in 2013 — is also getting in on the act. After standing next to Obama in the East Room on Tuesday, he sat for an interview with NowThis, a news video network geared toward social media, in a bid to target millennials. On Wednesday, he’ll do a series of interviews with local news affiliates in markets that have been home to high-profile guns-slayings (Hartford, Connecticut; Roanoke, Virginia and Charleston) or in states where gun safety legislation is pending (Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia).
Even as gun control advocates have praised the White House’s efforts, they pledge to still push Congress and Obama to do more.
The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has blanketed the airwaves with ads warning of “a government that would disarm us during the age of terror.”