At times angry and at others tearful, President Obama on Tuesday announced a series of executive actions on gun control that even he admitted will have only a limited impact on gun violence in the United States.
Speaking in the White House, before an audience of gun control activists and family members of people killed in mass shootings, Obama laid the blame for what he described as a failure to adequately address the issue of mass shootings on members of Congress, who routinely block even gun control proposals with broad popular support.
Ticking off the locations of mass shootings that have occurred during his presidency, Obama acknowledged that his decision will not prevent all or even most gun deaths. Instead he characterized his actions as an incremental step toward solving a problem that costs tens of thousands of Americans their lives every year.
The executive actions he proposed include expansion of mandatory licensing of anyone in the business of selling firearms and the requirement that they conduct background checks on all gun buyers, an improvement of the federal background check database, more staff at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better access to mental health services, and an effort to bring state mental health records into the background check system.
The president also briefly referred to a slate of two dozen executive actions related to guns that he announced two years ago, which do not appear to have had a substantial impact on gun deaths or mass shootings so far.
Obama acknowledged that progress toward his goal of making it harder for criminals and the mentally unstable to purchase firearms will be slow, and that past efforts have been stymied by a powerful gun lobby – primarily the National Rifle Association – which wields extraordinary influence over members of Congress.
“We have to be just as passionate, just as organized in defense of our kids,” Obama said, moments after wiping tears from his face after referring to the murder of 26 people, including 20 elementary school students, at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut two years ago.
“The reason Congress blocks laws is that they want to win elections,” he said. “If you make it harder for them to win elections because they block those laws, they’ll change course. I promise you.”
Entering his final year in office, the president appeared resigned to the fact that he will make little progress on the issue during his tenure. “It won’t happen during this Congress,” he said. “It won’t happen during my presidency.”
However, he tried to cast the struggle to implement gun controls as one that, like women’s suffrage, gay rights and civil rights, can only succeed after decades of dedicated work by their supporters.
Obama cited the December death of 15-year-old Zaevion Dobson, a Knoxville, Tenn., high school student who, according to police, died when he attempted to shield three friends from men firing guns into a crowd of people.
“We are not asked to do what Zaevion Dobson did,” he said. “I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage or sacrifice or love … We can find the courage to vote. We can find the courage to get mobilized, get organized … and do what a sensible country would do.”
Republicans in Congress on Monday preemptively declared the President’s actions unconstitutional, and after his remarks Tuesday, their position seemed little changed.
“Like the rest of the nation I am saddened by the horrific acts of mass violence that have struck our communities, but the measures announced today threaten our constitutional rights and would not solve the problem,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip.
“An unwillingness to find common ground and achieve compromise has been a hallmark of this president’s tenure, and this issue is unfortunately no different. Rather than unilaterally impose a gun control agenda that’s unlawful and strips the constitutional rights of elderly Americans, the President should better enforce current law and work with Congress on legislation reforming our mental health system.”
However, Obama’s call to expand the background check requirement to all people in the business of selling weapons is a position that has consistently had high levels of support from the U.S. public.
“Over time, almost any question that we or other pollsters ask Americans about background check laws and other ways of restricting access to guns gets very high support levels,” wrote Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport last month. “In the October poll, 86% of Americans favored ‘a law which would require universal background checks for all gun purchases in the U.S. using a centralized database across all 50 states.’… Prior Gallup polling has found strong support for increasing penalties for those who buy guns for others who have not passed background checks, banning the possession of armor-piercing bullets, requiring background checks for those purchasing guns at gun shows, and restricting purchase of high-capacity ammunition clips.
“Americans, in short, would be totally on board if Congress were to pass more restrictive background check laws,” Newport wrote.
However, as Obama noted Tuesday, Congress is in no hurry to do any of those things.