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President Obama Announces Executive Action on Gun Control

President Obama discusses his gun control plan with attendees at a January 4, 2016 meeting in the White House Oval Office. (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama discusses his gun control plan with attendees at a January 4, 2016 meeting in the White House Oval Office. (Pete Souza/White House)

An emotional President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced new executive actions meant to curb what he called America’s “gun violence epidemic.”

Flanked by relatives of gun violence victims and gun control activists, the president delivered a live address from the East Room of the White House. The usually cool Obama wept while discussing the mass shootings that have plagued the nation in recent decades, with tears streaming down his face as he lamented the 20 first-graders killed during the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” said Obama. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency,” the president said. “It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”

With more than 1.5 million people killed by guns since 1968 — more than the total number of US troops killed in all American wars combined, and with an annual gun death toll topping 30,000, Obama announced a series of actions he would take in an effort to tackle one of the greatest public safety and health issues facing the nation.

The president will seek to expand the number of gun buyers subject to background checks and hire more FBI agents to assist in the expanded and enhanced background check regimen. Individuals who are “in the business of selling firearms” will be required to register as licensed gun dealers, a move meant to narrow the so-called gun show loophole that exempts most small dealers from keeping sales records. Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that around 90 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks.

In addition to expanded background checks, Obama proposed a $500 million investment in improvements to the nation’s mental health system. The president also directed the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology, especially so-called smart gun technology.

“If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure they can’t pull a trigger on a gun,” Obama said, comparing smart guns to smartphones requiring fingerprint identification for use.

Realizing the limitations of executive action, Obama called on Congress to take action to reduce gun violence.

“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” Obama said. “Congress still needs to act. The folks in this room will not rest until Congress does… It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen during this Congress, it won’t happen during my presidency.”

Addressing concerns by gun rights advocates who believe that the Second Amendment prohibits any action that would infringe upon the right to bear arms, Obama said there are other rights beside the Second Amendment that also matter, listing a series of mass shootings at places of religious worship.

“There are other rights that we care about, as well, and we have to be able to balance them,” he asserted. “Because our right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina; and that was denied Jews in Kansas City; and that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.”

“Our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers in Columbine and from first-graders in Newtown,” Obama added, referring to some of the many shootings at college, high school and even elementary school campuses over the years.

Obama had harsh words for the gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), and insisted that his “commonsense executive actions” are “not a plot to take away everybody’s guns.”

“I believe in the Second Amendment, there written on paper, that guarantees the right to bear arms,” the former constitutional law professor said. “No matter how many times people try to twist my words around, that’s our constitutional law. I know a little bit about this. But I also believe that we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment.”

The president also addressed critics who claim gun control measures won’t stop mass shootings.

“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,” he added. “But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

Reaction to Obama’s speech came swiftly and furiously from gun rights advocates. The NRA posted a series of tweets criticizing the president’s plan:

NRA tweets

Leading Republicans also blasted Obama’s effort.

“The president has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement. “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.”

The Republican presidential candidates all rejected the president’s proposals. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) dismissed them as “not worth the paper they are printed on.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush accused the president of “trampling on the Second Amendment.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared on Fox News, where he said Obama is “obsessed with undermining” the Second Amendment. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson tweeted Obama’s actions “have everything to do with advancing his political agenda and nothing to do with actually protecting American citizens.”

The three Democrats running for president applauded Obama’s plan.

“It’s become clear that no mass shooting, no matter how big or bloody, will inspire Republicans to put children and innocent Americans over the interests of the NRA,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said in a statement. “They are simply more loyal to gun lobbyists than our children.”

Hillary Clinton tweeted her thanks:

Clinttweet

Gun control advocates largely hailed the president’s speech, with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence posting a thank you message on its website:

“Thank you for taking historic action to expand Brady Background Checks! Thank you for helping to make this the better, safer nation we all want and deserve! Thank you for listening to the American people, stepping up and saying enough! … Thank you, Mr. President, for showing us what is possible and for making all of us safer.”

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