Frustrated by years of inaction in Congress as one gun massacre followed another across the country, President Barack Obama issued executive orders today designed to push through what gun control advocates have described as long overdue, common sense “gun safety reform.”
“Every single year,” the president said, describing his proposals from the East Room in the White House this morning, “more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns—30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters or buried their own children. Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learned to live without the love of their life.”
The president noted the many recent instances of devastating and daily gun violence, from rampages in Aurora, Charleston and San Bernardino, among many others, to the consistent toll taken on the streets of Chicago by guns, but he was most clearly moved when remembering the particularly horrific attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Ct., in December 2012. He had been introduced by Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was among the 20 children and six adults killed at the school.
“First graders…,” the president began, before pausing to wipe away tears, “every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.” The president said he has become tired of the nation’s ritualized responses to such gun tragedies.
"Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying," Obama said. "I reject that thinking.
"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.
He added an observation he has made repeatedly in recent weeks as mass killing incidents seemed to break out across the country: “The United States of America is not the only country on earth with violent or dangerous people. We are not inherently more prone to violence.
“But we are the only advanced country on earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency,” he said. “It doesn't happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close. And as I’ve said before, somehow we’ve become numb to it and we start thinking that this is normal.”
Instead of responding to that problem together, he said, “this has become one of our most polarized, partisan debates—despite the fact that there’s a general consensus in America about what needs to be done.”
The president’s plan would require all gun sellers to be licensed and to conduct background checks on buyers, would expand background checks to weed out would-be gun buyers with criminal records, would improve mental health outreach aimed at preventing gun rampages and suicides and would boost gun-safety technology. His plan predictably unleashed a social media firestorm and became the target of GOP contenders like front-runner Donald Trump, who had vowed on Sunday to immediately rescind Obama’s executive orders on guns were he elected.
The president during his announcement made some effort to reach out to moderates across the aisle on the issue. “I’m not on the ballot again,” he said. “I’m not looking to score some points. I think we can disagree without impugning other people’s motives or without being disagreeable.
“We don't need to be talking past one another. But 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. And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice.”
All the same, he did not disguise his frustration with the absence of progress on gun legislation in Congress since Newtown. “Think of this,” the president said, “when it comes to an inherently deadly weapon…Congress actually voted to make it harder for public health experts to conduct research into gun violence; made it harder to collect data and facts and develop strategies to reduce gun violence. Even after San Bernardino, they’ve refused to make it harder for terror suspects who can’t get on a plane to buy semi-automatic weapons. That’s not right. That can't be right.
“So the gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage. We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.” He said his new orders would make partial progress on containing gun violence but added that “Congress still needs to act.
“Because once Congress gets on board with common-sense gun safety measures we can reduce gun violence a whole lot more. But we also can't wait until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives—actions that protect our rights and our kids.”
His proposals were immediately rejected by the National Rifle Association and an array of Republican political figures, particularly candidates in the 2016 presidential race.
The executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, Chris Cox, said in a statement: “Once again, President Obama has chosen to engage in political rhetoric, instead of offering meaningful solutions to our nation's pressing problems. 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 attack.”
He added, “The American people do not need more emotional, condescending lectures that are completely devoid of facts. The men and women of the National Rifle Association take a back seat to no one when it comes to keeping our communities safe. But the fact is that President Obama's proposals would not have prevented any of the horrific events he mentioned. 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.”
In a statement released after the president’s announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan said: "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. Ultimately, everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president, which is another reason we must win in November.”
Ryan charged that “from day one, the president has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding. He knows full well that the law already says that people who make their living selling firearms must be licensed, regardless of venue. Still, rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”
Campaigning in Iowa, Senator Ted Cruz dismissed the new proposals as “not worth the paper they are printed on.” He added, “When you live by the pen, you die by the pen and my pen has got an eraser.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, in an op-ed piece in Cedar Rapid’s newspaper, The Gazette, accused Obama of “trampling on the Second Amendment.” Bush attacked the president and Democratic presidental candidate Hillary Clinton for “[seizing] on every opportunity to advance a gun-grabbing agenda.” He vowed to repeal the president’s executive orders “on Day One” if elected. After a shooting rampage in Oregon in October, candidate Bush was roundly criticized for rejecting calls for more government oversight on guns by noting that "stuff happens," adding "there's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."
GOP contender New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, previously perceived as a moderate on gun control, called president Obama a “petulant child” for planning executive action on guns. “This president wants to act as if he is a king, as if he is a dictator,” Christie said, adding that if courts did not overturn the executive actions, “I’m sure that ultimately the next president will make sure that he abdicates those extra constitutional actions.”
The president emphasized that his administration was not attempting to infringe on second amendment gun ownership rights or to track down firearms legally possessed. Contrary to the claims of some gun rights proponents, he said, his executive orders don’t represent “the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation. Contrary to claims of some presidential candidates…this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns. You pass a background check; you purchase a firearm.
“The problem is,” he said, “some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules. A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked. A recent study found that about one in 30 people looking to buy guns on one website had criminal records—one out of 30 had a criminal record. We’re talking about individuals convicted of serious crimes—aggravated assault, domestic violence, robbery, illegal gun possession. People with lengthy criminal histories buying deadly weapons all too easily. And this was just one website within the span of a few months.”
The president’s first proposal, which would require that “anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a license and conduct background checks, or be subject to criminal prosecutions,” is meant to address that lacuna. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or at a gun show. It’s not where you do it, but what you do.”
His new orders would also expand background checks “to cover violent criminals who try to buy some of the most dangerous firearms by hiding behind trusts and corporations and various cutouts,” adding that the administration would also be making reforms to make the background check system more efficient. “We’re going to hire more folks to process applications faster, and we’re going to bring an outdated background check system into the 21st century.”
In an effort aimed at “to ensure the smart and effective enforcement of gun safety laws that are already on the books,” the president said his administration plans to add 200 more agents and investigators to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Gun safety advocates have complained that through recent administrations the bureau has been whittled down to the point of ineffectualness by Congress acting on behalf of gun lobbyists.
The president said his number three priority was “to do more to help those suffering from mental illness get the help that they need.” He explained, “High-profile mass shootings tend to shine a light on those few mentally unstable people who inflict harm on others. But the truth is, is that nearly two in three gun deaths are from suicides. So a lot of our work is to prevent people from hurting themselves.” The president said he will seek $500 million more “to expand access to treatment across the country.”
He added that his new gun safety measures would ensure that federal mental health records are submitted to the background check system and remove barriers that prevent states from reporting relevant information. “If we can continue to de-stigmatize mental health issues, get folks proper care, and fill gaps in the background check system, then we can spare more families the pain of losing a loved one to suicide,” he said. “And 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.”
The president send his executive orders would include a boost for gun safety technology. “Today, many gun injuries and deaths are the result of legal guns that were stolen or misused or discharged accidentally,” he said. “In 2013 alone, more than 500 people lost their lives to gun accidents—and that includes 30 children younger than five years old. In the greatest, most technologically advanced nation on Earth, there is no reason for this. We need to develop new technologies that make guns safer. 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…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.”