WASHINGTON (CN) – President Barack Obama announced new initiatives on Tuesday aimed at curbing gun violence in the wake of a series of mass shootings across the country.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House Tuesday morning, the president announced efforts to close loopholes in background checks, pump up federal funding for people seeking mental health care and to invest in gun safety technology.
Joining Obama in the announcement were former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during a meeting with constituents in Tucson, Arizona in 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Mark Barden, the father of a victim of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.
Also flanking the president during the speech were 13 victims of gun violence, family members or first responders. Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, introduced Obama.
“The truth is that every gun related death is preventable, and we need your help,” Barden said before the president took the podium. “We need everybody engaged in this.”
Obama opened his remarks by listing the mass shootings about which he has addressed the nation during his time in office. He specifically mentioned the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Conn., the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. in 2012, and the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. last year.
He teared up after mentioning the first graders gunned down in Newtown, and again before acknowledging the rash of violence on the streets of his hometown Chicago.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” the president said as tears rolled down his face.
He invoked a range of political figures, from Martin Luther King Jr., to former presidents George W. Bush to Ronald Reagan in urging Americans to feel urgency on the issue of gun control.
“Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters or buried their own children,” Obama said. “Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learn to live without the love of their life.”
The executive action the president announced today would force virtually anyone who sells guns, whether at a traditional store, a gun show or online, to conduct background checks.
The president said it was unfair that “dangerous people” seeking to buy guns have an easier time doing so than lawful gun owners.
In the past, criminals could circumvent background checks by simply buying their guns online or at a gun show, the president said.
“The problem is some gun sellers have been operating under a different set of rules,” he said. “A violent felon can buy the exact same weapon over the Internet with no background check, no questions asked.”
The regulations would also allow the FBI to hire 230 more examiners to help speed along background checks as well as 200 additional agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to enforce gun laws.
“And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice,” the president said. “That’s why we are here today, not to debate the last mass shooting but to prevent the next one.”
He also repeatedly insisted most Americans support what he called “common sense” gun laws, and chastised Republicans in the Senate and running for president for not supporting such reforms. He urged Americans who support stricter gun laws to vote and come together to be as organized as the gun lobby.
“So the gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage but they cannot hold America hostage,” the president said.
He insisted his reforms would not, as some in the Republican party have claimed, prevent law abiding citizens from buying guns legally.
“How did we get here?” Obama asked “How did we get to a place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?”
After all, people who support the First Amendment rights to privacy and free speech do not protest having to go through metal detectors or not being able to yell “fire” in crowded theaters, the president said.
In addition to action related directly to the buying and selling of guns, Obama announced a proposal to allocate $500 million to increase access to mental health care, addressing those, especially on the Republican side who blame gun violence on mental health issues.
Finally, Obama committed the federal government to undertaking research on how to make legally purchased guns safer. If an app can find a lost iPad, the same should be possible for a lost gun, Obama said, drawing laughs from Biden standing behind him.
In a sign of the polarization that so confused him during his speech, the president’s actions drew widespread criticism from Republicans and praise from Democrats.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio vowed in a speech in New Hampshire Sunday to undo Obama’s actions if elected, a promise fellow Senator Ted Cruz echoed Monday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chair of the House Oversight Committee had similarly strong words on Obama’s move on gun control.
“The president’s actions are out of bounds and vastly exceed his executive authority, Chaffetz said in a statement Tuesday. “This is yet another attempt by President Obama to bypass the American people, their elected representatives, and the Constitution itself. The president’s approach undermines the foundation of our democracy. The Committee will continue to conduct vigorous oversight and shine light on this administration.”
At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., lauded the president for answering the “country’s call for action on gun violence.”
“These are important first steps in fighting the epidemic of gun violence that has engulfed our nation, and they consist of reforms that are widely supported by the American people,” Reid said in a statement. “Expanding and enhancing the federal background check system, investing in greater access to mental health and putting more law enforcement agents on the streets are common sense actions that will help make our country safer.”
Obama spoke with hope during his speech, but cautioned that Congressional action would be necessary to make his actions even more effective.
Invoking the story of Zaevion Dobson, a high school student in Tennessee who died after shielding three girls bullets during a shooting, Obama ended his speech with a plea to Americans to summon the courage to fight for further action.
“I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage or sacrifice or love, but if we love our kids and care about their prospects and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote, we can find the courage to get mobilized and organized, we can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do,” the president said.
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