In a speech outlining executive actions his administration plans to take in an effort to curb gun violence, many of which he has been trying to implement for years, he stressed the common sense of his directives, and urged Americans to stand up to those who oppose his efforts.
He invoked many of the incidences of gun violence that had compelled him to action, beginning with Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords’s shooting five years ago, on Jan. 8, 2011 in Tucson, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School – which inspired a bill that would have expanded background checks, but failed because of fierce Republican opposition – and then recited some of the mass shootings that have occurred since he took office in 2009, including Charleston, South Carolina; San Bernardino and Santa Barbara, California; Aurora, Colorado; Fort Hood, Texas; Binghamton, New York; the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.; and Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
At times, he was greeted with sighs of assent, and later, standing ovations, as when he called out the NRA: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now. But they cannot hold America hostage.”
The president said he wondered how the issue had become politicized, quoting Republican standard-bearers John McCain, George W. Bush, and the grand pooh-bah of them all, Ronald Reagan, on their sensible stances on guns.
He compared the effort to reduce gun deaths – the majority of which are suicides – to past struggles for civil rights, whether it was women winning the right to vote, the emancipation of black Americans, or LGBT rights; in doing so, he urged Americans not to give in to cynicism and defeat, or to grow dispirited by the routine nature of these tragedies, a routine which extends even to his now predictably outraged post-shooting speeches. “Just because it’s hard is no reason not to try,” he said, allowing that the effort will not succeed within his presidency nor during the current Congress.
Despite the tears, his speech was filled with personal anecdotes and chuckles, reminding Americans that he had taught constitutional law so that he was very familiar with the Second Amendment — to which he reiterated his steadfast commitment. Radical gun owners and the NRA have created a culture that elevates the Second Amendment such that it overtakes other rights Americans have, he said, including the right to assemble peaceably, the right to worship freely, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
But the crux of his speech rested on the initiatives his administration will take to strengthen and clarify existing laws on gun possession:
- All gun sellers must get a license and submit purchasers to background checks. The distribution channel will no longer matter. Background checks would expand to buyers who try to hide behind trusts, or purchase online, and the actual mechanisms of the checks would be streamlined.
- Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents will be empowered to crack down on stolen guns and lost weapons. The 2017 budget will allow for allow for 200 new hires at the ATF Bureau to enforce gun laws.
- A proposed investment of $500 million to expand access to mental health across the country. This was perhaps the least detailed of his actions, but he called on politicians to back up their rhetoric on blaming mental health for mass shootings by supporting this policy: “For those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is,” he said. Obama also pledged to remove barriers between federal record keeping on mental health issues and background checks, which might have prevented the Charleston, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Tucson assailants from obtaining guns.
- He called on manufacturers to ramp up the deployment of safety technology, which has existed for years but due to political pressure and strange laws has stalled before being allowed to come to market. Using common-sense comparisons with everyday smartphone technology – “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?” – he said that he would work with the private sector to make sure guns aren’t accidentally discharged by children, thereby reducing accidental deaths.
President Obama noted that we have regulation, safety procedures, and public health research for medicines, cars, and even toys, but that political inaction and cowardice have maligned and sometimes actively prevented public health professionals from studying and implementing reforms that could reduce gun deaths. On the whole, states that have stricter gun measures have fewer deaths, but those that that have weakened regulations, like Missouri, have seen gun deaths rise above national levels.
“Maybe we can’t save everybody, but we could save some,” he pleaded.
Invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., twice, he asked Americans to “feel ‘the fierce urgency of now’” and “find the courage” to vote and mobilize on this issue. He ended with the story of Zaevion Dobson, a 15-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee, who died while shielding three girls who were caught in an accidental crossfire.
Republican presidential candidates predictably denounced Obama and his reforms, with Sen. Ted Cruz calling them “illegal and unconstitutional” and House Speaker Paul Ryan saying that without a doubt Obama’s actions will be challenged in court.
Anticipating a frequent anti-gun-control canard, the president clarified: “Contrary to the claims of what some gun rights proponents have suggested, this hasn’t been the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation… This is not a plot to take away everyone’s guns.”
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesperson, said Tuesday afternoon that the president was “well within his legal right” to make these reforms and that the White House worked with the Department of Justice to coordinate these executive actions.
The president has said that Dec. 14, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, was the worst day of his presidency, and that the failure to pass gun-control legislation in its wake was one of his most stinging defeats.
“Every time I think about these kids,” he said, referring to the 20 first-graders between the ages of 6 and 7 who were murdered, “it makes me mad.”