Human Rights

In Emotional Speech, Obama Issues Executive Orders to Expand Background Checks for Gun Buyers

The president was visibly choked up when he mentioned the first-graders killed at Sandy Hook.

In a strong and emotional speech on Tuesday attacking the National Rifle Association for fabricating false fears and chiding congressional Republicans for inaction, President Obama issued more executive orders to try to lessen the epidemic of gun deaths in America.

“We do have to feel a sense of urgency,” Obama said. “People are dying and the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice. That’s why we are here today. Not to debate the last mass shooting, but to try to do something to prevent the next one.”

At one point in the speech, the president said: “First-graders, in Newtown...first-graders,” and was visibly moved. “And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet,” he continued, wiping away some tears, though his face stayed wet. “Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

The centerpiece of the executive order is requiring all sellers of firearms to be licensed by the government and for all buyers to undergo background checks. He also announced a new push to get gun manufacturers to create new safety locks and said the government would spent an additional $500 million on mental health treatment.

“Fort Hood. Binghamton. Aurora. Oak Creek. Newtown. The Navy Yard. Santa Barbara. Charleston. San Bernardino,” Obama began, listing the worst mass shootings during his tenure. “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. It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.”

Obama said he refuses to “become numb to it and start thinking this is normal” and laid out a rationale for reasonable gun controls. He unpacked the inflammatory rhetoric of the gun lobby—its paranoid claim that any government action to screen gun buyers is a first step toward confiscation of weapons or a breach of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. “I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said, “but I also believe that we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment.”

“Contrary to the claims of what some gun rights proponents have suggested, this hasn’t been the first step in some slipperly slope to mass confiscation,” he said. “Contrary to claims of some [GOP] presidential candidates just before this meeting, this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns. You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm.”

The first and possibly biggest step Obama outlined was instituting a uniform background check requirement wherever guns are sold—stores, gun shows and online. Currently, no screening is required at gun shows and online. Obama said “dangerous people play by a different set of rules” to circumvent background checks, but that could be curtailed by requiring that “anybody in the business of firearms must get a license and conduct background checks or be subject to criminal prosecution.”  

Background checks work to prevent violence, Obama said, pointing to two states that have taken opposite approaches. In Connecticut, where the checks have been increased, gun deaths have fallen 40 percent. In Missouri, where the checks have been loosened, gun deaths are "50 percent higher than the national average."

Obama said the current system that law enforcement uses would become more “efficient” by hiring several hundred more federal agents to review gun applications and upgrading the government’s computer systems conducting these checks. He said gun dealers would be required to report lost or stolen merchandise.

About 30,000 Americans are killed annually by guns, Obama said, noting two-thirds are suicides. “A lot of our work is to prevent people from hurting themselves,” he said, announcing the federal government will spend an additional $500 million on mental health screening and treatment. He also said gun safety technology has to be improved and become commonplace and secure. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we can make sure they can’t pull a trigger on a gun,” he said. “This is not that complicated.”   

Obama repeatedly said that the majority of gun owners agree with these steps and not with the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric opposing reasonable gun controls. He cited support for expanded background checks from Republican presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and many other Republicans like Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.

“We need the wide majority of responsible gun owners, who agree with us every time this happens and feel like their views are not being properly represented, to join with us to demand something better,” he said, referring to congressional inaction. “We need voters who want safer gun laws and are disappointed in leaders who stand in their way, to remember come election time.”

But Obama also said he did not expect the current Congress to pass any gun controls.

“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 was decades worth of work. So just because it’s hard, is no excuse not to try.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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