President Barack Obama moved quickly to respond to the "epidemic of gun violence" in America, which results in more than 30,000 deaths each year, by signing 23 executive orders and calling on Congress to pass specific proposals, including universal background checks and a ban on military style assault weapons. But he also acknowledged that getting Congress to act "will be difficult."
The president's heartfelt announcement came barely a month following the horrific mass murders by a lone gunmen in Newtown, Connecticut, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. "In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary," the president said, "more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun -- 900 in the past month."
Vice President Joe Biden and four young children, who had written the president following the shooting, joined President Obama. The president read excerpts from their letters, including one from a boy named Grant, "I think there should be some changes. We should learn from what happened at Sandy Hook. I feel really bad."
The president had asked Vice President Biden to lead a task force and make recommendations to curtail gun violence. Those recommendations were submitted to the president earlier this week, and the president used them as the basis for his announcement.
President Obama called on Congress, "to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun." Currently, there is a law that requires only licensed gun dealers to do background checks. But gun buyers can avoid a check by purchasing a weapon at a gun show or from a private seller.
The president asked Congress to "restore" a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10 round limit for magazines. Mr. Obama pointed out that a gunman using an assault weapon was able to shoot 70 people in "a matter of minutes" at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater last July, and kill 12. "Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater" he said. He also called on Congress to "get tougher on people who buy guns with the expressed purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals."
The executive orders he signed are all focused on giving local officials and organizations the "tools" they need to reduce gun violence. "We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them, and develop emergency preparedness plans," the president said. "We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence." He also said he will direct the Center for Disease Control to study the cause of gun violence and asked Congress to "fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds."
In his remarks, Mr. Obama said, "I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen. There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting or sport or protection or collection."
Saying that with rights come responsibilities, the president shifted his argument from the rights of gun owners:
That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown; and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they'd lose a loved one to -- to a bullet, those rights are at stake.
Mr. Obama said, "We're responsible."
In advance of President Obama's announcement, the National Rifle Association posted a video on its website that criticized the president as an "elitist hypocrite" for opposing its proposal to put armed guards in every school. It said that the president's daughters have Secret Service protection. This is an indication of just how far the NRA will go to stop any gun control efforts. The NRA and gun manufacturers make large political donations to members of Congress, which they will use as leverage against any curtailment of gun rights.
But Mr. Obama anticipated his critics: "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." He even cited President Ronald Reagan's support of a 1994 ban on military assault weapons. But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, of Kansas, later responded by criticizing the Obama administration, "Apparently public safety matters only when there's political gain to be had. How can we expect them to act on new laws if they cannot even enforce the ones that currently exist?"
President Obama should be applauded for taking quick action to reduce the plague of gun violence in America in the wake of Sandy Hook. It will take strong and persistent leadership from the White House to get Congress to act on any of his proposals. While polls indicate a majority of Americans support some action, many congressmen represent districts that strongly oppose any gun legislation. The president recognized this in his remarks, "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."
Perhaps they can start by reflecting on the words written to the president by young Julia, "I'm not scared for my safety, I'm scared for others. I have four brothers and sisters, and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of losing any of them."