If it was not an eloquent president’s finest hour, it was close, this Tuesday in the East Room of the White House.
The president, surrounded by those who have been victims of gun violence – including former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and relatives of those killed in shootings in a Charleston, S.C., church, on the campus of Virginia Tech and in Newtown, Conn. – was passionate and emotional, unafraid to shed tears over deaths that might have been prevented with stronger gun laws on the books. Cynics and critics, of course, have long said some of the control measures the president has supported wouldn’t have stopped the killings in some of the places around the country that have seen bloodshed.
But the president said preventing even one death would make protective laws worthwhile.
“The United States of America,” he said, “is not the only country on Earth with violent or dangerous people. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency. It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”
As to the gun lobby’s cries about “rights,” Obama said other rights count: “Because our right to worship freely and safely – that right was denied to Christians in Charleston. 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.”
When the killings of 26 people, including 20 children, happened in Newtown, Conn., just over three years ago, it appeared America might at last be ready for meaningful action on tougher gun control laws.
America was. President Obama was. Some members of Congress were. But the National Rifle Association wasn’t, and that was that. The gun lobby exerts a tyrannical threat over members of state legislatures and Congress that goes something like this: Support gun control, even mild control, and we will pour money into your next election, and you’ll be gone.
Now, after October’s mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Ore., and then the San Bernardino shootings at a social services center, the president is moving to executive action to strengthen gun laws. Those sellers at gun shows, for example, who have skirted background check requirements because they’re not classified as federally licensed dealers will find themselves under more scrutiny and perhaps a different classification. Other steps may be coming.
The president is well aware that true change, that meaningful action to stem gun violence, will have to come from Congress, where the NRA’s death grip (sadly, a literal as well as figurative term) will stop anything substantive. If the deaths of 20 children and the subsequent episodes of violence, after all, aren’t enough to spur action, what is?
The president should move ahead. He has been in his last election, and he is very near the final year of his presidency. The gun lobby will fight him, but it holds no political sway over him anymore. And House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected Obama out of hand, indicating he might trust another president to address loopholes in gun laws, but not this one. Executive orders, even if they’re challenged in the courts, may be the only way to strengthen even slightly gun laws.
And then there’s public sentiment. The president said Americans can use their individual power to get Congress to do the right thing: “But if we love our kids and care about their prospects, and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote. We can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do.”
Gun control is not, contrary to what opponents say, about destroying the 2nd Amendment or taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, and it never has been. It’s about reason. It’s about safety. It’s about trying to stop, even once, people like the mentally impaired young man in Newtown from taking innocent lives.