For a president who sometimes is criticized as too cerebral and lacking emotion, the memories he carries from comforting grieving families in Tucson, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, the Navy Yard, Santa Barbara, Charleston, and San Bernardino came together in what history will likely record as one of President Obama’s landmark speeches on Tuesday.
It was an effort to bring urgency to the gun issue in the same way he rescued his candidacy with a speech about race when he first ran for the White House. And for the gun-safety advocates and gun-violence survivors packed into the East Room of the White House on Tuesday morning, it was a huge moment in a fight that for too long has seemed stalemated.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” Obama declared as he outlined the executive actions he is taking to circumvent Congress and expand background checks to cover the growing commerce of guns over the Internet.
“This is a great day for responsible gun owners,” said retired astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, whose wife, Gabby Giffords, got a standing ovation as she entered the East Room. Then-U.S. Rep. Giffords was shot in the head along with 18 others outside a supermarket in Tucson five years ago this week. “We’re grateful to the president for standing up to the gun lobby,” Kelly said after the White House event, describing himself to reporters as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.
Obama’s nearly 40-minute long speech was thankfully more sermon than college lecture as he sought to mobilize activists and voters alike for the long battle ahead. And one point, tears visibly streamed down his face. He didn’t use the word “movement” to describe the increasing array of gun-safety groups, some launched in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, but he reminded his audience that the women’s right to vote and the liberation of African Americans didn’t happen overnight, and LGBT rights took decades of work.
“Just because it’s hard, it’s no excuse not to try,” he said as he acknowledged the obvious, that gun violence and the scourge of mass shootings will extend beyond his presidency.
He expressed his puzzlement at how American society has reached a point where mass violence erupts with such frequency that it seems almost normal “and instead of talking about how to solve the problem, it’s become one of the most partisan and polarizing debates.” He put in a plug for a town meeting he is doing Thursday evening that will be televised on CNN. “I’m not on the ballot again. I’m not looking to score some points,” he said, adding that he wants to instill what Dr. King called, “the fierce urgency of now.”
“People are dying and the constant excuses for inaction no longer suffice,” Obama said. “We’re here not to debate the last mass shooting but to do something to prevent the next mass shooting,” a statement that got a big round of applause.
Obama’s rhetoric and his invocations of some of the lives lost brought people to tears, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, top aide Valerie Jarrett, and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Every year more than 30,000 Americans die in gun suicides, domestic violence, gang shootouts, and accidents, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost family members or buried their children.
“Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life,” Obama said. “Here today in this room, right here, there are a lot of stories, a lot of heartache… and this is only a small sample.”
After the event, several people stood out in the White House driveway in the bitter cold telling their stories. Among them was Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of slain Charleston minister Clementa Pinckney. She held a framed photograph of her husband as she told reporters about how her young daughters are frightened by any sound that could be a gunshot.
After Sandy Hook, Obama signed 23 executive orders reinforcing federal law in an attempt to restrain gun violence, and it’s taken the last year to navigate the legal thickets where Obama felt confident enough to go forward with closing the so-called “gun show loophole.” New guidelines on who qualifies as a gun dealer went up on an administration website as the president spoke.
Noting that two in three gun deaths is a suicide, Obama wants Congress to do more to fund access to mental health treatment. To those in Congress who rush to blame mental illness as a way to avoid the gun issue, he said, “Here’s your chance to support these efforts.” He also pledged to put the federal government’s research arm, including the Defense Department, behind gun-safety technology. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we need to make sure they can’t pull the trigger on a gun.”
The expansion of background checks so that people with criminal records, domestic-assault violations, and severe mental illness can’t buy guns is popular with all groups, including 64 percent of gun owners and 56 percent of those who describe themselves as “favorable toward the NRA,” according to pollster Anna Greenberg, who conducted the survey just before Thanksgiving for Americans for Responsible Gun Solutions, founded by Kelly and Giffords. Ninety percent of millennials support the kind of action Obama took, Greenberg said.
Elected officials have long memories, and Bill Clinton still blames the Democrats’ loss of Congress in 1994 on their support for the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban. A lot of big names went down in that election, and gun regulation went down with them. What Obama did this week is “the most significant achievement since the Brady Bill” more than 20 years ago, said Kelly.
It’s a nice twist of fate that Hillary Clinton might be able to capitalize on the shift. “Thank you, @POTUS, for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress---not rip it away” she tweeted after Obama’s speech. Guns are on the agenda in 2016, and Democrats are no longer cowering, which signals a cultural shift that goes beyond Obama’s still rather limited executive actions.