The president’s moves to keep guns out of the hands of people intent on harming themselves or others — bypassing Congress in the process — may be modest, but if his main goal was to insert the gun issue into a prominent place in the presidential campaign, he might have achieved it. NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron discussed the issue with Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Michael, how do you read the president’s remarks?
Aron: President Obama today, Mary Alice, was impassioned as he has been before on this issue. He was in a room full of gun control advocates. Gabby Giffords was in the room. This Friday is the fifth anniversary of her shooting. And he cried when he brought up the 22 first-graders from Newtown, Connecticut who were killed three years ago. He shed real tears. He talked about the people who’ve died on the streets of his hometown — Chicago. He tried to be conciliatory toward the NRA today, but it was tough for him to do that. At one point he lashed out at the NRA for all the obstacles thrown up against trying to do something about gun violence. He says that they block research, they block data collection, they block strategies.
President Obama: Even after San Bernardino they refused to make it harder for terror suspects who can’t get on a plane to buy semi-automatic weapons. That’s not right. That can’t be right. So, the gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage. We do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.
Williams: The executive action has long been expected, but today we really got the specifics.
Aron: We did. What the president is doing is expanding background checks to gun shows and the internet if you’re in the business of selling guns he said you have to be licensed by the federal government and therefore perform background checks. He’s adding 200 Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to help enforce existing gun laws. He’s adding 230 FBI agents to the instant criminal background check system. That’s a 50 percent increase in personnel. There’s a technical change that is designed to help protect victims of domestic violence from gun violence by their abusers. He’s putting $500 million toward mental health treatment and reporting of mental illness and he wants to promote smart guns. Smart guns is something we know about here in New Jersey.
Obama: In 2013 alone more than 500 people lost their lives to gun accidents, and that includes 30 children younger than 5 years old. On the greatest, most technologically advanced nation on earth, there’s no reason for this. We need to develop new technologies that make guns safer. If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?
Williams: The president reminded us that Republican President George W. Bush was for background checks at gun shows. Sen. John McCain, a Republican, introduced a bill to close the gun show loopholes. Even, he said, the NRA supported background checks.
Aron: And he threw Ronald Reagan into that mix too. He said Ronald Reagan indicated that if background checks work, he’d be for universal background checks. He also said background checks do work, and he pointed to Connecticut where they tightened the law after Newtown and gun violence is down versus Missouri where gun laws were relaxed and gun violence has spiked. He sounded bewildered talking about this issue. At one point he said this has been a polarizing debate. America is polarized on this issue. He did the expected — and he acknowledged that this was the expected thing — he said I support the Second Amendment, but sometimes there’s a clash of rights.
Obama: Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that we care about as well, and we have to be able to balance them. Because our right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina and that was denied Jews in Kansas City, that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.
Williams: What’s been the Republican reaction?
Aron: The presidential candidates on the Republican side have pretty much condemned this whole move that’s been in the works for the last four or five days. They’ve been criticizing what he was going to do in advance of him even announcing what he was going to do. I was struck by a statement that House Speaker Paul Ryan put out within maybe 60 second of Obama finishing the speech. It begins like this: “From day one, the president has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding. He knows full well that the law already says that people who make their living selling firearms must be licensed, regardless of venue. Still, rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, he goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.” That’s pretty harsh. “No wonder the president is trying to go around Congress.”