Obama Calls for Assault Weapons Ban; Chastises Congress for Serving Gun Lobby
President Barack Obama today took to the White House podium to deliver a strongly worded statement calling on Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, to limit sales of magazines to those that contain no more than 10 rounds of ammunition, and to close a loophole in the law governing gun sales that allows purchasers of weapons at gun shows to skip the background check required for gun purchases in retail establishments.
Then he walked over to a small desk and signed executive orders that he said would provide greater resources for school safety, educate mental health workers on their options in reporting threats, and one that directed the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research into the causes of gun violence. All told, Obama's plan includes 23 executive actions.
At the president's side
during the remarks stood Joe Biden, whose White House Task Force on Gun Violence delivered its report to the president earlier this week, after meeting with stakeholder groups, includng the National Rifle Association, whose leaders have continued to voice opposition to any new gun laws, even in the wake of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., one month ago. (See AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld, here, on the NRA's political power.) He opened his remarks by noting that, since last month's massacre, another 900 Americans have died from gunshot wounds.
Sharing the stage with Biden and Obama were several survivors of mass shootings, the parents of one of the Sandy Hook victims, as well as group of children who had sent the president letters in the wake of the tragedy, urging him to do something to prevent more shootings.
After the vice president delivered perfunctory remarks and introduced Obama, the president read from several of those letters, including one from a girl named Julia, who, like the others from whose letters Obama read, was asked to wave to the audience. Obama quoted her letter, reading: "'I'm not scared for my safety, I'm scared for others. I have four brothers and sisters, and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of losing any of them.'"
The president continued: "And these are our kids. This is what they're thinking about...This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change."
Obama Accuses Opponents of Ginning Up Fear
But Obama is well aware that the chances of passing an assault weapons ban are not in his favor. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to write off any possibility of an assault-weapons ban passing the current Congress. NRA President David Keene, in an appearance on CNN's State of the Union this weekend, rejected outright the gun-control measures the president laid out today.
Today, the NRA released an ad accusing the president of hypocrisy because his children attend a school with armed security (which might have something to do with the fact that the children of a sitting president of the United States are enrolled here) while he has expressed skepticism about the efficacy of putting armed guards in public schools. "Are the president's children more important than yours?" intones a narrator.
In his remarks, Obama painted Congress as spinelessly in the thrall of the NRA, and called upon constituents -- including, presumably, gun owners -- to make their legislators pass the bans the president has called for and with which, he said, a majority of Americans agree. He went on to directly reference right-wing attacks him, in which he's painted as tyrant worthy of overthrow.
"This will be difficult," Obama said. "There will be pundits and politicians and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that's true but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes they'll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever."
In addition to the studies he would order the CDC to do on gun violence, Obama also called on Congress to fund more research into the effects of violent video games -- and took a crack at another hallmark of the right: the denial of scientific evidence.
"We don't benefit from ignorance," the president said. "We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence."
He added that he would "put everything I've got" into the fight for the gun-control measures, but said nothing would change unless the American people prevailed upon Congress to make it happen.
First Amendment v. Second Amendment
One roadblock to the passage of meaningful gun control at the national level has long been the exploitation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, whereby the right to bear arms for the sake of maintaining "a well-regulated militia" has been construed by right-wing leaders and the gun lobby as a guarantee of the right to own any weapon of virtually any kind -- and as many of them as one might care to.
And because of the Tea Party movement's constant invocation of the nation's founders and the Constitution (in a rather skewed reading thereof), Obama's framing of his proposals as evidence of his faithfulness to the Bill of Rights was a deft rhetorical move. In his riposte to the right's Second Amendment claims, the president invoked the religious freedoms and right of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment, as well as a well-worn phrase from the Declaration of Independence.
After assuring his audience of his commitment to the Second Amendment, Obama made clear his belief that the Second Amendment should not be permitted to trump the freedoms granted in the First Amendment, and referenced recent shootings to make his point.
"You know, the right to worship freely and faithfully, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin," the president said. "The right to assemble peacably -- that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. That most fundamental set of rights -- to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate, and all the families who've never imagined that they'd lose a loved one to a bullet, those rights are at stake. We're responsible."
Progressive Groups Back President
Until today's announcement by Obama, progressives were occasionally heard grousing about the president's lack of interest in gun legislation. No longer.
Before the White House press event concluded, progressive groups were applauding Obama's initiative, and announcing efforts of their own to push Congress to act.
CREDO Action announced the launch of its "whip count" feature, whereby users can call senators directly from a CREDO Web page to insist that they vote for the president's gun safety priorities. (Page is here.)
Both the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Courage Campaign issued statements backing the president, along with links to their groups' petitions.
"The PCCC is all in for this fight, investing time and money in Republican and Democratic districts until Congress passes major gun legislation that includes an assault weapons ban," wrote Stephanie Taylor, the group's co-founder, in a statement. (You can see the PCCC petition here.)
The Courage Campaign, best known for its effort to repeal California's anti-marriage equality referendum, Proposition 8, weighed in with its own petition supporting the assault-weapons ban championed by Sen. Diane Feinstein, who succeeded George Moscone when the San Francisco mayor was gunned down along with City Supervisor Harvey Milk. (Courage Campaign petition is here.)