Washington

Obama's 'common-sense' gun plan—and the too-common response

Barack Obama's White House announcement of executive actions over sale and possession of guns inspired tears. And gun sales. And partisan ire.

U.S. President Barack Obama announces steps the administration is taking to reduce gun violence while delivering a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington January 5, 2016. Obama said the  gun control measures were well within his authority to implement without congressional approval. Vice-President Joe Biden is at right. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama announces steps the administration is taking to reduce gun violence while delivering a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington January 5, 2016. Obama said the gun control measures were well within his authority to implement without congressional approval. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Weeping in unashamed public anguish for the youngest victims of his country’s intractable machine-gun mania, U.S. President Barack Obama claimed—for at least the 21st time—the executive authority to institute “common-sense” new restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms Tuesday, yet another attempt to bypass a trigger-happy Congress that even Obama admitted has almost no chance to succeed.

The President’s words fell upon a gallery of unutterable grief at the White House: family members of innocent citizens who were killed in wholesale massacres and intimate murders both infamous and barely noticed. They included the parents of several of the 20 Grade 1 pupils who were slaughtered in their classrooms by a heavily armed Connecticut madman; the families of university students, Sikh and Christian worshippers who were mowed down by rifle fire within their own unfortified sanctuaries, and the kinfolk of individuals who were slain without warning or mercy at drive-throughs and parking lots and shopping centres across a nation where more than 30,000 people a year perish at the wrong end of a gun.

Watch: Barack Obama’s remarks on gun violence

Obama cited manifold advocates of “common-sense” gun control that included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., senators of both political parties, president Ronald Reagan, and even his own Texan predecessor, George W. Bush, noting that Bush once announced his own support for “background checks at gun shows or anywhere to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.”

“I’m not on the ballot again,” the sitting—though increasingly lame-duck—President said in the gold-panelled East Room, where the bullet-broken body of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln once lay in state. “I’m not looking to score some points. I think we can disagree without impugning other people’s motives or without being disagreeable. We don’t need to be talking past one another. But we do have to feel a sense of urgency about it. In Dr. King’s words, we need to feel the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ Because people are dying. And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice.”

On Wall Street, stock in gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson rose 11 per cent in Tuesday trading. The company’s shares have nearly tripled in value in the past 12 months.

Reaction from Republicans was immediate and even anticipatory. Hours before Obama spoke, Jeb Bush, the former president’s brother and a (currently) bottom-tier candidate for the Republican nomination to replace Obama 54 weeks hence, lambasted the expected initiatives as “an utter disregard for the Second Amendment.” This, of course, is the clause in the nation’s 225-year-old Bill of Rights that protected—and still protects—any man’s right to stalk a squirrel or wield a musket against a re-imposition of tyranny from the Throne.

“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,” candidate Bush said. “Liberals like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seize on every opportunity to advance a gun-grabbing agenda.”

“Obama is obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another presidential hopeful. (There was no immediate comment from @RealDonaldTrump.)

On Tuesday, Obama outlined three specific areas for executive action.

“Number one,” he said to applause, “anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a licence and conduct background checks, or be subject to criminal prosecutions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or at a gun show. It’s not where you do it, but what you do.”

The President also announced his intention to hire 200 more federal agents to enforce existing firearms regulations, and called for an increased emphasis on mental health screening and record-sharing as part of the licensing process.

“I’ve said this over and over again . . . I believe in the Second Amendment,” Obama stated. “It’s there written on the paper. It guarantees a right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to twist my words around: I taught constitutional law, I know a little about this, I get it. But I also believe that we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment.

“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage. We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.”

Obama’s tears barely had dried before an executive of the National Rifle Association declared, “The American people do not need more emotional, condescending lectures that are completely devoid of facts.”

Congressional Republicans weren’t any more conciliatory. The chairman of the House judiciary committee said Tuesday that his members will “closely monitor the administration’s actions and consider whether legislation is needed to further protect Americans’ constitutional rights.”

And the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, charged, “Rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.”

“Yes, it will be hard, and it won’t happen overnight,” Obama acknowledged. “It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency. But a lot of things don’t happen overnight.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.