President Obama has delivered some version of this speech so many times that even his disclaimers that “this has all become routine” have themselves become routine. The fact that none of the changes Obama has called for in the many addresses he has given after shootings is clearly getting to him, which became obvious as he began crying while explaining his new executive actions on guns this Tuesday.
The 27 deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary weighed particularly heavily on him. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said, tears visible on his face. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
“So all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies,” Obama added, speaking in the East Room before gun-violence-prevention activists and the families of those killed in shootings. “All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislatures and businesses do their part to make our communities safer. We need the wide majority of responsible gun owners who grieve with us every time this happens and feel like your views are not being properly represented to join with us to demand something better.”
Earlier in the day, news broke that the White House was unveiling a set of regulations governing who can sell firearms without a federal license. These are not new laws; they clarify existing ones, reducing the number of for-profit dealers who can evade background checks, with a special focus on internet retailers. Much of Obama’s address focused on summing up his plans — and laying out the emotional and political reasons for why he is making them, despite resistance from conservative legislators.
Obama also revealed plans to improve the efficiency and response times of the existing background-check system, expand access to mental-health coverage so as to reduce the incidence of gun suicides, and devote new federal funds to the development of gun-safety technology.
“If you can’t unlock your phone unless you have the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same for our guns?” Obama asked. “If there’s an app to help us find a missing tablet — which happens to me often now that I’m getting older — there’s no reason we can’t do it with a stolen gun.” Significantly, before he announced these unilateral actions, the president spent nearly a half-hour stressing their limitations. “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” he said. “I want to be clear. Congress still needs to act.”
Although the executive orders were the occasion for Obama’s address, the need for legislative action on gun reform was his real emphasis. The president reiterated the broad popularity of universal background checks, noting majority support for them even among Republicans and NRA members. He also reaffirmed his belief in the constitutional right to gun ownership. Acknowledging the alarmist rhetoric used by “some presidential candidates,” Obama assured the public that he had no interest in confiscating their firearms.
But in the most impassioned section of his remarks, the president defended the need to balance the right of gun ownership against other competing rights. “Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that are protected as well. Because the right to worship freely and safely was denied to Christians in Charleston, to Jews in Kansas City, to Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek,” Obama said, his voice growing louder with the invocation of each mass shooting. “The inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was robbed from college students in Blacksburg … and from first-graders in Newtown.”
He concluded by suggesting that the reforms necessary to protect those fundamental rights would not be achieved by executive actions in the present, but by legislative changes in the future. “It will be hard, and it won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency. But a lot of things don’t happen overnight. A woman’s right to vote didn’t happen overnight,” Obama said. “So just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try.”
Immediately after Obama concluded his remarks, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan told the Associated Press that the president’s words amounted to “a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”