An emotional President Barack Obama – at times teary, at others impassioned and angry – urged ordinary Americans on Tuesday to rise up and defeat the well-organized gun lobby in a struggle to cut the carnage of 30,000 killed by gunfire annually in the United States.
He accused the gun lobby of holding Congress hostage but called for voters to fight back to so “they cannot hold America hostage.”
“It will be hard, and it won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency,” Mr. Obama admitted as he announced he was bypassing Congress and using his executive power to order background checks on all gun sales, narrowing a loophole in existing legislation that allows small-scale gun dealers to skirt background checks.
In essence, Mr. Obama, who for seven years has been vowing tighter gun control without making any progress, issued a clarion call to battle the legions of voters who believe the President is bent on taking away their guns.
Although the President has only limited powers to act without passage by Congress of legislation, Mr. Obama has repeatedly attempted to use his executive authority to impose change.
Firearms laws vary widely in the United States, with many allowing gun-toting citizens to carry concealed but loaded handguns anywhere while others impose varying restrictions. Broadly, any adult who isn’t a convicted felon can lawfully buy, own and carry a firearm. Estimates vary, but most suggest there are more guns than people in the United States.
In 2009, the Congressional Research Service estimated 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles including so-called military-style assault weapons and 86 million shotguns.
Mr. Obama’s new orders would force all gun sellers – even between friends or at small gun shows – to conduct a full background check on prospective buyers.
“This is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns,” Mr. Obama insisted. Instead, he compared tougher gun control to the long fight for civil rights or women’s right to vote. “A lot of things don’t happen overnight,” he said, adding: “The liberation of African-Americans didn’t happen overnight. LGBT rights – that was decades’ worth of work. Just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try.”
A chorus of Republicans and gun lobbyists quickly denounced Mr. Obama – accusing him of overreach, of presidential abuse of executive authority and trampling on the Constitutional Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“Barack Obama is obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the dozen Republicans seeking to succeed him as president.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said, “Obama wants your guns,” and promised to erase the President’s executive order on his first day in the Oval Office. “When you live by the pen, you die by the pen,” Mr. Cruz said, referring to the ease with which executive orders can be reversed.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, another Republican seeking his party’s nomination for president, said: “When I am president of the United States, I will repeal Obama’s anti-gun executive orders on Day One of my administration.”
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said Mr. Obama was targeting the wrong people. “Rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens,” he said.
In his emotional address in the East Room of the White House, surrounded by scores of relatives of those killed by gunfire, Mr. Obama repeatedly wiped tears from his cheeks as he spoke of the massacre of 20 young schoolchildren three years ago in Newtown, Conn.
“That changed me, that day,” he said, after being introduced by the father of one of the slain. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”
But efforts after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School to persuade Congress to toughen gun laws failed.
Mr. Obama’s foray into unilateral gun control may raise the political stakes on the bitterly divisive issue, but whether it will become a major campaign issue in this election year remains unclear. Currently, every Republican candidate remains implacably opposed to any tougher gun control while all three Democratic presidential hopefuls praised the President’s executive order.
What seems certain is the President’s order will have little impact on the carnage. Of the 30,000 gun deaths in the United States annually, nearly two-thirds are suicides. Only a handful – fewer than 100 most years – are mass shootings or terrorism, the two types of gun violence that attract almost all of the media attention and most of the furious debate about gun rights and gun control.
Mr. Obama said it didn’t matter if his proposals had only a marginal impact.
“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,” Mr. 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.”
The National Rifle Association – perhaps the single most powerful lobby group in the United States, which grades lawmakers on their gun-friendliness and spends hundreds of millions to defeat candidates advocating even modest gun control – quickly denounced Mr. Obama’s plan. The NRA won’t allow “law-abiding gun owners to become scapegoats for President Obama’s failed policies,” said Chris Cox, the group’s top lobbyist.
By comparison, gun-control advocates are far less well-organized and have far less to spend. “The President is doing his part, now we have to do ours because the fight isn’t over,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, named for the spokesman for President Ronald Reagan who was shot in the head by an assassin in 1981. He blamed gun makers. “The corporate gun lobby won’t go down without a fight because, regardless of who lives or dies, their top priority is to sell as many guns as they can to anyone who will buy them.”
Mr. Obama also suggested better technology could cut gun deaths, noting that modern cellphones require the owner’s fingerprint to unlock so “why can’t we do the same thing for our guns” and “if a child can’t open a bottle of Aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger.”
WASHINGTON — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jan. 05, 2016 12:20PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Jan. 05, 2016 10:17PM EST