Real presidents don't cry. But this one did, and with good reason.
On Jan. 5, while announcing in the East Room of the White House the executive actions he was taking on gun safety, President Obama ticked off the examples of gun violence this nation has suffered in the last few years. When he got to Sandy Hook, he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and paused to take a breath, while tears flowed down his cheeks.
The memory of those 20 first-graders, mowed down in their classroom, is enough to make anyone weep. That, and the cowardly refusal of Congress to act – even after mass murders at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, Roseburg, Virginia Tech, San Bernardino and countless daily victims of gun violence. Finally – finally, what took him so long? – Obama gave up on Congress and decided to do whatever he could under his own executive authority to keep guns out of the hands of those who have no business having them.
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In the end, there wasn't much he could do, but even that little bit goes in the right direction. Obama's efforts are aimed at fixing today's broken background check process, principally in clarifying existing law by expanding the definition of gun dealers. From now on, if you sell more than one gun anywhere – at a gun shop, gun show, online, or in your home garage – you are a gun dealer, you must have a license, and you must apply for a background check. To handle the anticipated flood of new applications within the existing three-day limit, the federal government will hire 230 new examiners. Those who continue to sell guns without a license or background check would be subject to a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Again, those measures won't stop every act of gun violence. They would not have prevented the massacres at Sandy Hook or San Bernardino. But they will still make a difference. According to the Brady Campaign, background checks have blocked the sale of 2.4 million guns to prohibited purchasers since they went into effect in February 1994. Yet, Brady Campaign President Dan Gross told me this week that, under the old rules, 40 percent of gun sales were still not subject to background checks. The new Obama rules change that.
Still, as the president is the first to point out, there's much more that needs to be done to end the easy access to guns in this country, including: making permanent the broader background checks temporarily expanded by the president; reinstating the ban on assault weapons; lifting the restriction on research into gun violence and establishing a federal database to track and record all gun sales. These are all common-sense measures which in no way interfere with anyone's Second Amendment rights and which enjoy broad public support.
The real question is: By refusing to take any action on gun safety, whom does Congress represent? Certainly not the American people. In the latest Pew Research survey, 85 percent of Americans – including 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans – support universal background checks. Seventy percent support creation of a federal data base, and 57 percent favor banning the sale of assault weapons.
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Why won't Congress act? Because too many of them are afraid of the NRA, operating under the ancient mythology that it's impossible for anybody to take on the NRA and survive politically. This may have been true at one time, but it is manifestly untrue today. The NRA doesn't represent sportsmen or hunters, anymore. It's little more than a paper tiger, just one more special-interest lobby, which happens to represent gun manufacturers. Congress has hundreds of members – Congressmen David Cicilline of Rhode Island, John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Sam Farr and Dianne Feinstein of California among many, many others – who have stood up to the NRA and won re-election. All the rest are lacking is political courage to do the right thing.
Given their refusal to take any action on gun control, most Americans have given up on Congress. But not the Brady Campaign's Dan Gross. Appearing on my radio show this week, Gross argued that, with every great cause, there's a moment where the tide starts to turn – as it did with civil rights and as it did again recently with same-sex marriage. And he sees President Obama's executive actions as the turning point on gun safety. When public outrage grows to the point when Congress must act. We can only hope he's right.