After seven years of congressional foot dragging — despite the mounting death toll from mass shootings from Newtown, Connecticut, to San Bernardino, California — president Obama announced in an at times emotional speech Tuesday executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence.
Flanked by families from Newtown, and speaking before an encouraging audience, including former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Obama struck a conversational tone — seemingly calibrated not to antagonize the passions of Second-Amendment fundamentalists who see any new restriction as the first step toward a federal gun-grab. Despite the warmth in his voice, the president did not pull any punches: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now,” he said, “but they do not have to hold America hostage.”
Obama made clear he understands the Second Amendment. “I taught constitutional law,” he said. “I know a little about this.” But he made an impassioned, tearful defense of balancing Second-Amendment freedoms against the liberties of those victimized by gun violence: their right to peaceably assemble in a movie theater, their right to worship in a house of god, and their inalienable rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness.
The president’s top executive action is one first surfaced by candidate Hillary Clinton last fall. The White House is expanding the definition of a gun business to narrow the loophole that has allowed sales at gun shows and on the Internet to transact without a background check. Under the expanded definition, anyone who is “engaged in the business” of gun sales must now run a check on their buyers. “It’s not where you do it,” Obama said, “It’s what you do.” A fact sheet released by the White House suggests that anyone selling more than two guns could be held to this standard, and potentially face fines and prison time for failing to comply.
Other executive actions announced today are less sweeping. The White House will make it harder for prohibited individuals to buy guns by standing behind trusts or corporate identities, and it will strengthen the background check system itself so it can flag gun sales 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The president also urged Congress to “put its money where its mouth is” to spend another $500 million a year on mental health services. And he called for Congress to fund another 200 ATF agents and investigators to enforce gun laws already on the books.
The NRA, predictably, did not take kindly to the president’s address, trolling on Twitter: “President Obama’s executive orders will do nothing to improve public safety. #2A #fact”