President Obama may have intended to begin his second term picking a fight with Republicans over the debt ceiling, but with the stroke of a pen and a paternalistic chiding of Congress today he rang the bell on a fight over gun rights.
Backdropped by four kids ages 8 to 11 who had written letters to the president asking him to do something about guns, Obama rounded out his speech on Vice President Joe Biden’s gun-control proposals by putting 23 executives actions into effect ranging from tweaking or clarifying law enforcement procedures (such as one memorandum he issued on firearms tracing) to directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.
He also ditched his longtime preferred nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Andrew Traver, by offering up a less controversial pick in the guy who’s been acting director since August 2011, U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones.
But adding inflection to his script that could have come straight from an Aaron Sorkin production, Obama challenged the GOP to win the war of public opinion and Capitol duels over gun rights.
“In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun — 900 in the past month,” Obama said in an auditorium that included Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as victims and families of mass shootings from Sandy Hook to Virginia Tech. “And every day we wait the number will keep growing.”
“This will be difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever,” he said.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this — and so will Joe — but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it. And by the way, that doesn’t just mean from certain parts of the country. We’re going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important. It can’t just be the usual suspects.”
Yet one of the “usual suspects” who, after Sandy Hook, called for greater dialogue on guns had early criticism for the proposals.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a National Rifle Association member, said he will “weigh each recommendation carefully,” but called out the administration for excluding gun owners as it pushes forward.
“I am disappointed that the president did not recommend the creation of the national commission on mass violence that I have proposed,” Manchin said. “A national commission can build the consensus we need for real action backed not only by gun-control advocates, mental health experts and entertainment industry executives but also by law-abiding gun owners who fully understand the history and heritage of firearms in America.”
Titled “Now is the Time,” the president’s gun-control plan consists of:
- Requiring background checks for all gun sales, including between private sellers and gun shows. “A national survey of inmates found that only 12 percent of those who used a gun in a crime acquired it from a retail store or pawn shop, where a background check should have been run,” the plan states. The coordinating executive action calls on private sellers to start selling their guns through licensed dealers so a background check can be performed.
- Strengthening background checks and ensuring states are sharing all applicable information. The coordinating executive actions clarify that ObamaCare doesn’t place barriers to sharing mental-health information and direct Holder to review whether more people should be deemed “dangerous” and prevented from acquiring a gun under the current background system.
- Pressure Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban and limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, as well as approve a $4 billion administration request for more cops. Obama also wants Congress to make the possession of armor-piercing bullets by anyone other than the military and law enforcement illegal.
- Implement new training and tracing for law enforcement. Obama also wants departments to run a background check on theft victims before a stolen handgun is returned.
- Conduct research on “how and when firearms are used in violent death” and on the links between violence and violent images in videos games or other media.
- “Protect the rights of health care providers to talk to their patients about gun safety.”
- Launch a national ad campaign about responsible gun safety and encourage the development of new gun-safety technology.
- “Put up to 1,000 new school resource officers and school counselors on the job” and help schools implement emergency plans.
- “Help 8,000 schools create safer and more nurturing school climates” to reduce bullying, etc. “The Administration is proposing a new, $50 million initiative to help 8,000 more schools train their teachers and other school staff to implement these strategies. The Administration will also develop a school climate survey, providing reliable data to help schools implement policies to improve climate,” the plan states.
- “Making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun,” in the words of Obama, by launching a new initiative, Project AWARE, to target people suspected of mental illness, particularly in ages 16 through 25.
- “Twenty-two percent of 14 to 17 year olds have witnessed a shooting in their lifetime. … To help schools break the cycle of violence, Congress should provide $25 million to offer students mental health services for trauma or anxiety, conflict resolution programs, and other school-based violence prevention strategies.”
Reaction from Hill Republicans was swift.
“Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook. President Obama is targeting the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “…I will oppose the president’s attempts to undermine Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.”
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said the proposals amount to a “power grab.”
“I will fight any legislation that further restricts qualified owners’ access to guns. I am also against the president using executive orders to circumvent the will of the people and infringe on the constitutional rights of my constituents,” Barton said. “This right is put in jeopardy by the stricter control measures proposed today by the president.”
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said the gun-control push in the wake of Newtown “demeans the memories of those innocent lives that were so tragically taken.”
“More gun restrictions may allow Washington to congratulate itself, but will never change the sickness and depravity that drive someone to murder indiscriminately. Instead, let’s look to our communities, our churches, our doctors, and our families: the institutions that do have the power to solve the problem,” said Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.).
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) accused Obama of trying to “legislate through emotion.”
“The right of the people to defend themselves against tyranny is the reason for the Second Amendment,” he said. “We cannot disarm all law-abiding Americans in an attempt to preempt a deranged individual.”
Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (R-La.) slammed the president’s pressure on doctors to get involved in gun control.
“Any attempt by President Obama to take away the gun rights of law-abiding Americans will be met with strong bipartisan opposition in Congress,” Scalise said. ”President Obama has no business interjecting himself in the doctor-patient relationship by pressuring medical professionals to ask their patients what kind of guns they own in their homes. President Obama’s latest executive orders give new meaning to the term ‘house call.’”
“Without specific legislative language, it is impossible to evaluate the potential consequences of the president’s proposals,” said Senate Judiciary Committee member Mike Lee (R-Utah). “But I am deeply concerned that the president’s approach is inconsistent with fundamental Second Amendment rights and encroaches on the authorities of state and local governments.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reminded the president that attempts to reinstate the assault weapons ban have already failed.
He also predicted bipartisan opposition to the president’s proposal.
“One bullet in the hands of a homicidal maniac is one too many. But in the case of a young mother defending her children against a home invader — a real-life event which recently occurred near Atlanta — six bullets may not be enough,” Graham said. “Criminals aren’t going to follow legislation limiting magazine capacity. However, a limit could put law-abiding citizens at a distinct disadvantage when confronting a criminal.”
Some Blue Dog Democrats sided with the GOP; c0-chairman of the coalition, Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), said the president needs to focus on enforcing existing laws.
“But I strongly disagree with proposals that would deny law-abiding citizens their Second Amendment rights,” he said.
After weeks of preparation for this day, canvassing cable shows promoting gun-control measures and taking the public’s temperature on such proposals post-Newtown, most Democrats indicated they’re willing to run with Obama’s proposals on the Hill.
“I applaud President Obama’s bold leadership in putting forth a package of common sense gun safety measures to help reduce the scourge of gun violence and protect our communities and children,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “For too long, members of Congress have turned their backs on measures to prevent gun violence as the NRA turned up the heat to protect gun manufacturers. This time must be different.”
“Like most responsible gun owners, I support the 2nd Amendment, and I also support common sense measures to make our nation safer,” said Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). “For many years, I have supported a renewal of the assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazine clips, universal background checks for all gun purchases and ending online sales of firearms and ammunition.”
“I support our police agencies, who have implored us to make these changes,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the president’s proposals “reflect a series of clear and concrete steps in the effort to rein in, reduce, and prevent gun violence in our country.”
“The president’s executive actions are critical to our response; they are necessary; but, as the president said, they are not sufficient,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who unsuccessfully sought an NRA endorsement in 2010, was more muted in his reaction and didn’t ensure anything would pass.
“I thank the president’s task force for its thoughtful recommendations. I am committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence in our society early this year,” Reid said in a brief statement.
But new North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), on a local TV station Tuesday, called the White House’s push “wrong-headed.”
“There isn’t any amount of gun regulation or gun executive orders that will solve the problem of identifying people who could potentially do this and making sure they get the help and their families get the help so they don’t do this,” Heitkamp said. “I think it is an agenda driven by something other than school shootings.”
That echoes Heitkamp’s earlier assessment of the administration’s gun-control push, in a Jan. 6 appearance on ABC’s This Week.
“I think you need to put everything on the table, but what I hear from the administration — and if the Washington Post is to be believed — that’s way, way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about,” the Democratic senator said. “And it’s not going to pass.”