President Barack Obama officially launched his campaign to reduce gun violence on Wednesday, signing 23 executive orders and calling on Congress to restrict access to weapons used in recent mass shootings.
Flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and four children who wrote letters to the White House after December’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., the president said he intended to use whatever weight his office holds to make his proposals a reality.
“If there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if even one life we can save, we have an obligation to try it,” Obama said, speaking to an audience that included family members of the 20 first graders and six adults killed at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The president’s executive orders included additional training for mental health professionals, ordering federal agencies to make more data available for gun purchase background checks, stiffer penalties for people who lie on background checks, and improvements to school safety. He also nominated B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The president’s proposals are estimated to cost $500 million.
But Obama also challenged Congress to approve three pieces of legislation he first called for in the hours following the Newtown mass shooting: a ban on military-style assault weapons, a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and universal background checks for anyone buying a gun.
Getting the proposals past the Republican-led House of Representatives will be challenging, if not impossible, a political reality the president has acknowledged. But turning to the four children sitting to his left, Obama said he couldn’t ignore the requests of the most vulnerable Americans he had sworn to protect. In one letter, a little girl told the president she knew laws had to be passed by Congress but begged him to try very hard to make sure her younger siblings remained safe in school.
“I will try very hard, but she’s right,” the president said.
Congress will only pass the proposed gun-control legislation if Americans demand their representatives support it, the president warned. He described the proposals as common sense measures with broad support among a majority of Americans, even sportsmen, hunters, and those who vow to protect the Second Amendment’s guarantee for gun ownership. He even claimed posthumous support from a Republican icon—former President Ronald Reagan—who in 1994 urged Congress to pass the nation’s first assault weapon ban. That law expired in 2004 without enough support from lawmakers to extend it.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s largest gun rights lobby group, did not immediately respond to the president’s announcement. But earlier this week, the group released a television advertisement calling Obama an elitist hypocrite for sending his two daughters to a school with armed guards but denying other parents the right to have their children similarly protected. Last month, the NRA proposed placing armed security guards at every school in the nation and launched a program to provide a safety plan for any school that wanted one.
Two of the executive orders Obama signed on Wednesday included money for 1,000 additional school police officers and support for enacting campus safety plans.
Despite the president’s claim of widespread support for stricter gun control laws, fears among gun enthusiasts about the measures are driving record numbers of buyers to gun shows across the nation. One seller in San Francisco told National Public Radio earlier this week the price for the military-style assault weapon the president wants to ban had risen from $800 to $1,800 since the Newtown shootings.
If passed, the proposed legislation would only ban future sales of the weapons. It would not require people to give up guns or magazines they already own.
The president said America is and will remain the land of the free, where its citizens are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, but he added that rights come with responsibilities. Because we live in society and not in isolation, he said, we are responsible for each other.
After the Newtown shooting, the president traveled to Connecticut to meet with the parents whose children died in the attack. One family gave him a painting by their daughter, Grace, who wanted to be an artist. It now hangs in the president’s private office. Every time he looks at it, he said he thinks of the little girl who painted it.
“When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now,” he said. “For Grace and the others, who had so much else to give. For all the Americans counting on us to keep them same from harm. Let’s do the right thing, for them and for this country that we love so much.”