Wiping away tears for schoolchildren gunned down three years ago, President Obama said Tuesday he’s imposing new gun regulations by executive action because Congress refuses to pass gun measures that could prevent more mass shootings in the U.S.
The president directed government agencies to take several steps to restrict gun ownership, the most significant of which is expanding background checks on some gun sales such as online transactions that have skirted the requirement.
Mr. Obama’s move circumventing Congress on guns immediately drew battle lines for the 2016 elections, with Republican presidential candidates vowing to overturn Mr. Obama’s actions and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton promising to build on the president’s “progress.”
Gun rights advocates said Mr. Obama’s action is misguided, will not make people safer and has instantly energized conservatives in an election year. Gun control groups said their movement now has unprecedented momentum.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage,” Mr. Obama declared as he outlined the new regulations at the White House. “We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican running for president, released a new television ad Tuesday saying that Mr. Obama plans to “take away our guns,” and America needs a president “who will keep us safe” from terrorists.
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The president’s 10 steps on guns include $500 million more in federal funding for treating mental illness — a move that would likely need congressional approval — and tightening the reporting requirement for guns that are lost or stolen in transit.
On Capitol Hill the reaction was split mainly along party lines. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Mr. Obama is engaging in “a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”
“He knows full well that the law already says that people who make their living selling firearms must be licensed, regardless of venue,” Mr. Ryan said. “Still, rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens.”
The speaker vowed that Congress will conduct “vigilant oversight” on the president’s moves.
“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” Mr. Ryan said. “His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts. Ultimately, everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president, which is another reason we must win in November.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said Mr. Obama’s action will “bring some sanity to our gun laws and keep guns out of the hands of criminals and other potentially dangerous individuals.”
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In announcing the steps, Mr. Obama surrounded himself with survivors of mass shootings and family members of victims in the East Room event, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. He said there was “a lot of heartache” in the room.
During his 40-minute address, the president brushed away tears as he spoke about the 20 children who were murdered at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, which prompted a failed push in Congress to expand background checks on gun purchases.
“First-graders,” Mr. Obama said, brushing tears from his face. “Every time I hear about those kids, it makes me mad. And, by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, met with Mr. Obama before the event and told him that the group’s late founders, Sarah and Jim Brady, were “looking down smiling” on the president. They hugged.
Mr. Brady was the press secretary to President Reagan who was grievously wounded in an assassination attempt on the president in 1981.
In the East Room Mr. Gross said it was “deeply moving to watch the president wipe tears from his eyes.”
“It is clear that these are the actions of a man who is pure in his intent, doing whatever he can to save lives,” he said, calling the day “truly historic.”
Mr. Obama said his actions are designed “not to debate the last mass shooting, but to do something to try to prevent the next one.” While he said he wasn’t motivated solely by mass shootings in the U.S., he mentioned them prominently and listed a series of mass shootings from Sandy Hook to the terrorist attack in December in San Bernardino, California.
The president said he supports the Second Amendment, but said the rights of gun owners are interfering with other constitutional rights.
“Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that we care about as well,” the president said. “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 right to peaceful assembly — that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette. Our unalienable right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness — those rights were stripped from college students in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high schoolers at Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown.
“I’m not on the ballot again; I’m not looking to score some points,” the president said. “But we do have to feel a sense of urgency about it. Because people are dying. And the constant excuses for inaction … no longer suffice.”
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said the actions will do “absolutely nothing” to limit gun violence.
“This is going to do nothing to make people safer,” Mr. Pratt said. “The president’s actions are lawless. He’s pushing toward universal gun registration, universal background checks. That’s very concerning.”
He said the president’s move could backfire politically.
“This may just be a temporary victory for him in theory as he pleases his base,” Mr. Pratt said. “It certainly has rallied our base. In the end, he may realize that doing this in an election year was a grave mistake.”
Mr. Obama’s action also incorporates a move by the Social Security Administration to include information in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) about beneficiaries who are deemed incapable of handling their own finances and are prohibited from owning firearms. Mr. Pratt said the proposal could affect up to 4 million seniors.
“He’s taking a swipe at seniors,” he said. “The problem is that [it] affects inheritance and passing on firearms to children and grandchildren.”
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said he would repeal Mr. Obama’s “anti-gun executive orders” if elected president.
“Barack Obama has proved again why he will go down as one of the most liberal and divisive presidents in the history of our nation,” Mr. Bush wrote in an op-ed. “Obama’s declaration that he will impose his gun control agenda by executive order shows an utter disregard for the Second Amendment as well as the proper constitutional process for making laws in our nation.”
The president chided Mr. Bush and his GOP rivals for trying to scare voters.
“Contrary to claims of some presidential candidates … this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns,” Mr. Obama said. “You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm.”
Mrs. Clinton thanked Mr. Obama on Twitter “for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence.”
“Our next president has to build on that progress — not rip it away,” she said.
While the president focused much of his address on preventing another high-profile mass shooting, studies have shown that none of the recent mass shootings would have been prevented by more background checks. From the 2012 shooting in Connecticut to last month’s terrorist shooting in California, the firearms used were purchased from licensed dealers by individuals who all passed background checks.
Mr. Obama said he rejects those arguments, and even pointed to a violent rampage in China by a man with a knife as evidence that guns in the U.S. cause too much harm.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “So why bother trying? We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”
He said around the time of the Sandy Hook shooting, “a disturbed person in China took a knife and tried to kill with a knife a bunch of children in China, but most of them survived because he didn’t have access to a powerful weapon.”
“We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some,” Mr. Obama said.
In December 2012 a man with a knife injured 22 children at a school in central China; no deaths were reported. Private citizens in China generally are not allowed to own firearms.