Tearful Obama targets US gun violence with executive action that sidesteps Congress

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 7:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Tears filling his eyes as he summoned the ghosts of nearly two dozen children killed three years ago in their Connecticut classrooms, US President Barack Obama said he was pressing ahead with new firearms restrictions unilaterally because the level of gun violence in the United States has robbed so many Americans of their basic right to gather safely.

“First-graders, in Newtown,” he said Tuesday, pausing as he contemplated the 20 children who died along with six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “First-graders.”

The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can’t hold America hostage
US President Barack Obama

“And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet,” the president said, pausing again as he flicked away a few tears. “Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

Although the gun measures Obama outlined during his remarks in the East Room of the White House are modest, he may have succeeded in what he said he wanted to do in the wake of a mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, three months ago: politicise the issue of guns so that it becomes a prominent issue ahead of the 2016 election.

Watch: Obama in tears as he unveils plan to tackle gun violence in US 

In a speech that veered from tearful to outraged and even comic, the president said his decision to exercise his executive authority - a move that has infuriated many Republicans - was an effort to prevent further violence and bring the country together on a divisive issue.

“I'm not on the ballot again, I'm not looking to score some points.” he said, adding later that it was possible to reconcile the Constitution with additional restrictions on firearms. “We understand there are some constraints on our freedom in order to protect innocent people.”

The package includes 10 provisions, White House officials said. One key provision would require more gun sellers - especially those who do business on the Internet and at gun 

shows - to be licensed and would force them to conduct background checks on potential buyers. Obama would devote US$500 million more in federal funding to treating mental illness - a move that could require congressional approval - and require that firearms lost in transit between a manufacturer and a seller be reported to federal authorities.

At the president’s direction, the FBI will begin hiring more than 230 additional examiners and other personnel to help process background checks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Also, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has established a new centre to investigate illegal gun trafficking online and will devote US$4 million and additional personnel to enhance the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.

“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can’t hold America hostage. We can't accept this carnage in our communities,” Obama said in a Twitter message Monday evening, referring to the National Rifle Association.

By limiting the scope of the background checks measure - the administration is clarifying what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms - it may have bolstered the measure’s legal defensibility at the expense of having a far-reaching impact. This does not constitute new regulation, which would be subject to public comment and congressional review, but its application depends entirely on how aggressively federal authorities press the matter.

And though most of the actions the president outlined can take place unilaterally, lawmakers could raise the prospect of blocking the implementation of some of his plans through the funding process.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates have pledged to fight the measures, even as they described the administration’s push as minimal in scope.

Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA's legislative arm, said that in terms of redefining who needs to obtain a federal license to sell guns, “the administration is simply restating the current law with the intent to chill lawful behaviour by scaring law-abiding citizens who are hobbyists and collectors.”

“This is political theatre to distract from the president's failed record,” she said.