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Obama announcement puts gun control at center of 2016 campaign

Democrats praised President Obama's executive actions on guns, while Republicans blasted the announcement as an example of overreach.
Handguns are seen for sale in a display case in Bridgeton, Mo. (Photo by Jim Young/Reuters)
Handguns are seen for sale in a display case in Bridgeton, Mo.

Democratic presidential hopefuls were quick to praise President Barack Obama's executive actions on gun violence Tuesday, while Republicans blasted the emotional announcement as the latest example of the president exceeding his constitutional authority and underming the Second Amendment.

"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. They are simply more loyal to gun lobbyists than our children. That's why I support President Obama's executive actions," Democrat Bernie Sanders said in a statement.

While Obama was still speaking at the White House, Hillary Clinton sent a personal tweet voicing her support. In Iowa, Clinton said she previously has called for some of the actions the president announced Tuesday.

Obama unveiled a number of executive actions aimed at expanding background checks on gun buyers and called out the National Rifle Association's influence in helping stall previous gun reform efforts.

"The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage now, but they cannot hold America hostage," Obama said during an emotional plea that brought him to tears.

Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail were quick to slam the president for what they called another example of Obama exceeding his Constitutional authority.

"I oppose gun violence and I don't think anything the president is talking about doing or is doing will prevent it because gun violence is committed by criminals and criminals don't care what the law is, they violate it, that's why they're criminals," Marco Rubio said before vowing to undo the actions if he becomes president.

The gun debate has remained a hot issue thus far in the presidential race, fueling heated bipartisan reaction following mass shootings in places like Charleston, South Carolina and San Bernardino, California last year.

And though Republican candidates have staunchly opposed efforts to change the nation's gun laws, there are aspects of Obama's plan that some candidates have previously supported.

The issue most likely to give Republicans a headache is the president's take on mental health. The White House is seeking $500 million to make mental health care more accessible, a position in line with some in the GOP.

Ben Carson wrote a 2014 op-ed where he encouraged starting a conversation to prevent the mentally ill and violent criminals from obtaining a weapon.

"We must be reasonable and willing to engage in conversation about how to limit the availability of dangerous weapons to criminals and very violent or insane people," Carson wrote before reminding that threatening the Second Amendment is also "insanity."

Almost all Republican have addressed the need for states to decide whether the mentally ill should purchase weapons. Governors John Kasich and Chris Christie have cited poor background screenings on the mentally ill as a contributing factor to gun violence.

Kasich remains the only GOP candidate who believes those on the terror watch list should be banned from purchasing a gun, a move not included in the executive actions.

On the Democratic side, candidates are looking to go beyond the president's proposals. Clinton proposes revoking licenses for "bad-actor dealers" and making it possible for gun violence victims to sue the weapon manufacturers that hurt them. She has also promised to take executive action as president if Congress does not pass reform bills.

Sanders remains one of the most vocal candidates on gun violence reform, but numerous votes against expanding background check waiting periods—known as the Brady bill-gives him a spotty record on guns.

Sander's team defended his votes, claiming that the senator was only representing the wishes of his constituency.

"He wasn't opposed to states having (waiting periods) if they wanted to. The Republicans wanted to repeal waiting periods in states that had them, and Bernie voted that down," Jeff Weaver, Sander's campaign manager said in a statement last year. "He said he would be against waiting periods, and he kept his word to the people of Vermont."

Christie also faces flip-flopper allegations for supporting an existing assault weapon ban in New Jersey back in the 1990s. A local newspaper quoted a 1993 statement where Christie admits feeling "motivated" to run for state assembly after Republicans threatened to repeal the assault weapons ban.

"In today's society, no one needs a semi-automatic assault weapon…We already have too many firearms in our communities," he said.

On Fox News Sunday this week, Christie defended his gun record as the governor of New Jersey, toting that he has both signed bills banning those on the terror watch list from purchasing guns, while also vetoing several weapon bans and statewide I.D. systems.

"Listen, the approach I'm going to take is to protect Second Amendment rights but also to make sure I make decisions that are in the best interests of the people of New Jersey," he said. "I think that's what the people of the United States want and that's the kind of president I'm going to be."

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