WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama shed tears Tuesday as he announced limited measures to tackle rampant U.S. gun violence and called on Americans to punish lawmakers who oppose more meaningful reforms.
Flanked by survivors of the gun violence that kills around 30,000 Americans every year, and relatives of those killed, Obama became emotional as he remembered 20 elementary school children shot dead three years ago in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” the president said, struggling to collect himself. “So all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies.”
In the face of congressional opposition, Obama formally unveiled a handful of executive measures that will make it harder to buy and sell weapons, but which he admitted would not stop the scourge of mass shootings.
“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence,” he said.
There are thought to be substantially more than 300 million guns in circulation in the United States, more than one per person.
Speaking in the East Room of the White House, Obama invoked the words of his hero, Martin Luther King, as he called for urgency in a generational struggle akin to the fight for women’s, African-American, or gay rights.
“We do have to feel a sense of urgency about it. In Dr. King’s words, we need to feel the fierce urgency of now, because people are dying,” he said. “And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do.
“Yes, it will be hard. And it won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency,” he said.
“But a lot of things don’t happen overnight. A woman’s right to vote didn’t happen overnight. The liberation of African-Americans didn’t happen overnight. LGBT rights, that was decades worth of work.”
Taking on Republicans and the National Rifle Association directly, he decried the pro-gun lobby’s grip on Washington.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” he said.
The NRA hit back at Obama’s “emotional, condescending lecture.”
“The timing of this announcement, in the eighth and final year of his presidency, demonstrates not only political exploitation but a fundamental lack of seriousness,” said Chris Cox, a senior NRA official.
Polls have shown most Americans back tougher gun laws.
But that support has ebbed recently amid concerns about the Islamic State group and the wider threat from terrorism.
Republicans, who have long championed gun owners, quickly castigated Obama for trampling on the constitutional right to bear arms.
“His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty,” said the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan.
“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment. We will conduct vigilant oversight. His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts.”
The measures would tighten rules on who must register as a gun dealer, narrow a “gun show” loophole that allows buyers to dodge background checks, and crack down on “straw purchases” of weapons through intermediaries.
It would also encourage the Pentagon, with its vast buying power, to procure weapons from manufacturers who invest in “gun safety technology,” such as fingerprint scanners that could be applied to commercial weapons.
Obama’s remarks and recourse to controversial executive actions during an election year ensure that gun control will feature prominently in the 2016 race for the White House.
In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have used the issue to invigorate supporters and raise campaign funds.
Gun manufacturers frequently see sales surge each time tighter gun controls are proposed or a mass shooting occurs.
According to FBI figures, requests for background checks jumped by a third to over 3 million in December.
Gunmaker Smith and Wesson on Monday hiked its earnings estimates for the year ending in April, citing data which point to increased sales.
Obama said expanding background checks to cover more firearms transactions won’t trample on the right of Americans to own guns or lead to confiscation of weapons, as he made an emotional pitch for a package of executive actions intended to stem gun violence.
Having been stymied by Congress in previous attempts to tighten gun laws, Obama unveiled a set of actions Tuesday that modestly broaden the definition of who qualifies as a gun dealer, streamline reporting of mental health issues for purposes of background checks, require better tracking of lost or stolen firearms and bolster enforcement of existing laws.
The president was joined at the White House announcement by a group of people who were victims of shootings or lost loved ones to gun violence, and he wiped away tears as he talked about the 20 children massacred in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Obama said. “Congress still needs to act. The folks in this room will not rest until they do.”
The initiative falls short of the broad changes in gun laws that Obama has called for in the past. But it drew criticism even before it was previewed by White House officials Monday night.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans denounced the move as executive overreach, with the Wisconsin Republican saying the effort “will no doubt be challenged in the courts.”
“His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty,” Ryan said in a statement, adding that Obama “has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership.”
Republican presidential candidates also condemned the effort, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeting that the executive actions were “unconstitutional” and Ben Carson writing the moves would “merely regulate the freedom of law-abiding citizens.”
Obama’s measures include tougher rules for those who currently sell firearms at gun shows and on the Internet without submitting buyers’ names for criminal background checks, and a warning to sellers that they face criminal prosecution if they try to skirt the law.
The administration proposes hiring hundreds of new workers to modernize the background check system and to handle the additional requests for checks. In addition, Obama is requesting $500 million for new mental health research, and the Department of Health and Human Services is clarifying rules to remove some of the barriers to reporting a person’s mental health status to the background check information system.
Democratic presidential candidates were quick to applaud the president’s actions, with front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeting that the moves represent “a crucial step forward on gun violence.” Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who has been criticized by his Democratic opponents over his voting record on guns issues, said he would continue Obama’s executive actions if he succeeded him in the White House.
Obama invoked the list of mass shootings that have taken place while he’s been in office, particularly the killings in Newtown. He was introduced by Mark Barden, whose son was killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary and is now the managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed after those killings to push for solutions to gun violence.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said.
Potentially the most contentious part of Obama’s executive actions is broadening the definition of a gun dealer. The plan targets small-scale gun sellers, who may conduct transactions from home, a gun show or via the Internet and aren’t required to hold a license or submit buyers’ names for federal background screening.
Obama said requiring criminal background checks of buyers at gun stores isn’t an infringement on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and expanding those checks “is not a plot to take away everyone’s guns.”
However, the expanded background checks wouldn’t have blocked the sales of weapons used in most recent mass shootings, including the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook. The firearms in those cases were purchased through conventional outlets after background checks, though the buyer of the assault rifles used in San Bernardino was subsequently charged with making false statements regarding the purchase.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun lobby, derided Obama for delivering an “emotional, condescending” lecture “completely devoid of facts” on guns. Without listing specific objections, the group said in a statement that “the proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama administration.”
The National Shooting Sports Foundation said that it supported the administration’s effort to beef up staffing for the FBI’s background check system, and agreed that the government should do more to get mental health records shared with the federal government.
But the administration’s new criteria for who must register as a licensed gun dealer “needs considerable clarification,” the group said in a statement. And the administration’s requirement that manufacturers report weapons lost in shipping is “misdirected” because recipients of the weapons are in better position to know if guns arrived, the group said.
Gun control advocates argue that any constraints on access to weapons will reverberate throughout the murky gun market that has been booming as the threat of new restrictions has made news. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency’s National Instant Background Check System processed 23.1 million firearm background checks in 2015. That was 2.2 million more than the previous year, and an all-time record for the agency.
White House officials said the executive actions would have a tangible impact. Press secretary Josh Earnest said that over the past 15 years, an average of 1,300 guns reported as lost or stolen had been recovered annually at crime scenes. The steps to tighten reporting could help reduce that number.
And, the White House said, additional mental health screenings could help prevent suicides that represent two-thirds of the nation’s 30,000 annual gun deaths.
Sen. John Cornyn said the administration should work with Congress to improve those screenings, and that Obama was hampered by an “unwillingness to find common ground and achieve compromise.”
“If the President would roll up his sleeves and work with the bipartisan coalition in Congress who support legislation reforming our mental health system, together we could help prevent many of these tragedies from happening in our communities,” the Texas Republican said in a statement.
Obama’s critics Tuesday savaged his gun control steps as an unlawful assault on Americans’ constitutional rights, with Republican White House hopefuls pledging to immediately repeal the orders if they are elected in November.
Obama, wiping away tears as he pleaded for citizens and lawmakers to be more resolute in tackling gun violence, announced measures to tighten federal background checks for gun sales, require those in the business of selling guns to be licensed or face criminal prosecution, and expand mental health treatment.
Republicans, in the heat of a presidential campaign, immediately balked, with White House candidate Jeb Bush warning that Obama was “trying to do an end-run” on the Constitution despite an increased terrorism threat.
“Rather than taking guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens as Obama and (Hillary) Clinton would like to do, we should focus on keeping guns out of the hands of the terrorists who want to kill innocent Americans,” Bush wrote in Iowa’s Gazette newspaper.
“When I am president of the United States, I will repeal Obama’s anti-gun executive orders on day one of my administration.”
Republican hopeful Marco Rubio pledged the same, while long-shot candidate Mike Huckabee offered a stinging rebuke to Obama, linking the gun control fight to another hot-button battle in America’s culture wars: abortion.
“You say if we can save one life we should,” Huckabee tweeted to the president. “Well, apply 5th & 14th amendments to the unborn & save 4,000 lives a day.”
Former business executive Carly Fiorina slammed Obama’s move as “lawless unconstitutional overreach,” while retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson warned the president was merely “advancing his political agenda.”
Obama, in his White House address, said there was no “slippery slope” toward eroding gun owners’ rights and confiscating guns.
But critics including the top Republican in Congress accused him of intimidation that undermines American’s right gun rights.
“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a tweet as Obama unveiled his executive actions.
Several Democrats spoke out in support of Obama’s plans, including the three candidates running for their party’s presidential nomination.
Front-runner Clinton took to Twitter to thank Obama “for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress — not rip it away.”
The National Rifle Association on Tuesday said Obama’s new gun proposals are “ripe for abuse” by the government, and the powerful gun lobby group vowed to continue to fight to protect Americans’ constitutional rights to bear arms.
“The American people do not need more emotional, condescending lectures that are completely devoid of facts,” Chris Cox, executive director for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.