Tears streamed down President Obama’s face as he spoke of the 20 small lives crushed under bullets in a Connecticut schoolhouse. With his voice at times thick with emotion, he recalled the heroic recent death of a Tennessee teen killed while leaping between three young friends and a spray of bullets. The president called attention to the 30,000 or so lives typically lost each year to homicides or suicides committed with guns, noting those killed each day on the streets of his hometown of Chicago.
Ultimately, in no unflinching terms, Obama asked how much longer the nation will continue to be bullied by the all-powerful gun lobby, stuck in a sort of twilight zone of political theater that has made keeping a check on America’s lust for guns, and the violence they bear, virtually impossible.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now but they can't hold America hostage. We do not have to accept that carnage is the price of freedom,” Obama said from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, when he announced a series of executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence and tightening various gun sales loopholes. “Congress still needs to act. The folks in this room will not rest until Congress does.”
“The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections,” he said. “If you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they'll change course, I promise.”
It was indeed a rare show of emotion for the president, one couched in frustration over what he’s described as the “unfinished business” of meaningful gun reform. Efforts to push new gun legislation three years ago after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School had failed. Congress has since shown no appetite or desire to wrestle with current gun laws.
Following the latest spate of mass killings, Obama opted, instead of running headlong into an unwilling Congress, to undertake a series of executive actions that could be put in place immediately — without Congressional approval. None of what the president announced this week has the power to rewrite law. Rather, the measures constitute a muscular restating and clarifying of existing law and a shrinking of the so-called gun show loophole.
Sources within the administration said that, while the moves do not totally seal the many flaws in access to guns by unscrupulous buyers and sellers, it is the absolute most the president could have done without Congress and without opening the administration up to a torrent of litigation. Despite polls showing a wide majority of Americans, including gun owners, support background checks for guns sales, the issue remains deeply divided politically.
Current loopholes in the law allow occasional gun sellers who don’t have brick and mortar stores, who sell from their “private collections,” to sell their guns without conducting a background check. Those sellers are also not required to be licensed by the federal government. All federally licensed dealers must conduct background checks for all gun sales.
Obama's executive actions include the hiring of an additional 230 FBI examiners to help turn the federal background check system into a more efficient, 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation. Part of the plan also includes the hiring of an additional 200 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents who will focus on gun offenses and research in firearm technology, as well as a proposed $500 million to go toward mental health. The latter of which could be blocked by Congress.
But the heart of Obama’s action rests on a directive to the ATF to issue new guidance on who must conduct background checks for gun sales. The current law states that those “engaged in the business of selling guns” must be licensed by the federal government and, thus, conduct background checks.
Thousands of guns are sold each year by people who skirt the law via the gun show loophole and similar loophole for many online sales.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, an anti-gun violence group that consulted with Obama on his executive actions, just a handful of unlicensed high-volume gun sellers posted more than 30,000 gun ads on the largest online market for unlicensed gun sales, Armslist.com — all without the requirement of a background check or other safeguards required by licensed dealers.
“Today the President took an important step by moving beyond the gridlock of Congress to take executive action and clarify that those in the business of selling firearms must be licensed and conduct background checks,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown. “This will put traffickers on notice that they will have to comply with the law. Law enforcement will no longer have to fly blind when it comes to who and what qualifies as being engaged in the business of selling firearms, and as a result our cities and communities will be safer in the future.”
Others in the gun control community echoed similar support.
Jo Comerford, campaign director for MoveOn.org, the progressive advocacy group, called today’s actions “important first steps to fight the epidemic of gun violence in America.”
Capt. Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords and co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, described the slate of proposals as “probably the most significant achievement on this issue since the Brady Bill, and that was 22 years ago.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in a tweet, lauded Obama.
“Thank you, [POTUS], for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress—not rip it away.”
Clinton’s Republican rivals and other GOPers balked at the new measures, vowing to undo them if elected to office.
“I will fight as hard as I can against any effort by this president, or by any liberal that wants to take away people’s rights that are embedded in the Bill of Rights, embedded in our Constitution,” Jeb Bush said in a video released on Tuesday.
Gov. Chris Christie called Obama a “petulant child.”
Sen. Ted Cruz took an ominous tone, saying, “if you live by the pen you die by the pen, and my pen has got an eraser.”
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan wrote in a tweet, “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment.”
Despite the limited reach of the president’s actions and aside from the political daggers and posturing struck by his opponents, there was in Obama’s speech a raw emotion and earnestness.
“First graders,” Obama said with wet eyes, referring to the young Sandy Hook victims, “and from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
When asked about Obama’s rare show of emotion, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president has often described the shooting at Sandy Hook as the saddest moment of his presidency.
"Now even three years later, the thought of those first graders being massacred is terribly sad and really tragic, and really emotional for the president of the United States, who has two daughters," Earnest said.
The mass killings that have continued to rock the nation during his presidency are but one slice of what seems to have pushed Obama to take executive action. The daily drumbeat of violence, much of which snuffs out the lives of children his daughters' ages, is yet another.
Among those flanking Obama during his speech were the parents and loved ones of those lost to gun violence, including Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, the mother of Hadiyah Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was shot and killed in a Chicago park just weeks after marching in Obama's second inauguration parade.