It’s not every day we see a president cry in public, particularly the cool and calm Barack Obama.
He did Tuesday as he announced a series of executive actions on gun violence and talked about the victims of mass shootings, including the 20 first-graders killed at Newtown, Conn., three years ago.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said.
For his last year in office, Obama could hardly take on a more important – and controversial – crusade than America’s epidemic of gun violence. He’ll need all the outrage and strength he can muster to make real progress.
Cheered by family members and advocates at the White House, Obama said he will bypass Congress and use his presidential power to expand background checks – requiring more gun sellers to register as dealers, covering more sales online and at gun shows, and mandating checks for those buying weapons through trusts or corporations.
He also said he will push states to report those who should be barred from buying guns due to mental illness or domestic violence. To modernize and speed up background checks, the FBI will hire 230 more examiners and other staff. The FBI said Monday it conducted a record 23 million checks, meaning that gun purchases likely hit an all-time high as well.
Obama said his new budget will propose 200 more agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to better enforce existing gun laws and his executive actions, plus $500 million to further expand mental health treatment.
The president also called for more research in gun safety technology. If smartphones can’t be unlocked without the owner’s fingerprint, he asked, why not guns? That’s a very good question.
Let’s be clear: Obama is not – as his critics hysterically claim – plotting to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. He said, again, that he believes in the Second Amendment, and that his actions are consistent with it.
But they’re also limited. They don’t go as far as legislation he failed to get through Congress after Newtown to ban assault-style weapons and limit the size of ammunition clips, as well as expand background checks.
Even so, Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders predictably accused Obama of overstepping his authority and threatening the liberty of gun owners, and vowed to challenge his actions in Congress and the courts.
Yes, it would be better if Congress acted on this issue. Unfortunately, there’s little hope of that, given the influence and money of the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers. Even after the San Bernardino massacre last month, congressional Republicans refused to take the obvious step of prohibiting people on terrorism watch lists from purchasing guns.
So Obama has little choice but to go around Congress. “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” the president declared.
As Obama made clear, gun violence is a public health concern, as well as law enforcement issue, and should be treated as such. Counting suicides, guns now kill as many people as car crashes across much of America, more than 30,000 a year. But Congress won’t even lift a ridiculous provision that for 17 years has halted virtually all federal research into gun violence.
To counter the gun lobby, Americans who support common sense gun control have to be just as passionate and organized, as the president said. As part of his push, Obama plans to hold a televised town hall on Thursday, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the near assassination of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona. On Dec. 2, we’ll honor the first anniversary of the San Bernardino massacre.
But as the president noted, families across America quietly mark these sad anniversaries every day. And for all the bluster about the constitutional right to bear arms, Obama pointed out that shooting victims had their rights violated – freedom of worship for those slain in a Charleston, S.C., church, freedom of assembly for moviegoers killed in Aurora, Colo., the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness for students at Columbine, Colo., Virginia Tech and Santa Barbara.
“They had rights, too,” he said.
We’re still waiting for the president’s foes to explain why the rights of gun owners are somehow more important.