PRESIDENT Barack Obama wiped away tears as he condemned gun violence across the US and announced a new plan to tighten gun rules.
Mr Obama delivered a powerful address in the White House on Tuesday, surrounded by family members of people killed in shootings. His voice rose to a yell as he said the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms needed to be balanced by the right to worship and gather peacefully.
“People are dying. And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice,” he said. “That is why we are here today. Not to debate the last mass shooting, but to do something to prevent the next one.”
Mr Obama has often said his toughest time in office was grappling with theDecember 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Mr Obama said, tears rolling down his cheek.
“That changed me, that day,” he said, after being introduced by Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “My hope earnestly has been that it would change the country.”
After that tragedy, the Democratic president failed to persuade Congress to toughen US gun laws. He has blamed politicians for being in the thrall of the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby group.
He said Americans need to be “just as passionate” as the NRA in changing gun laws, but acknowledged it won’t happen during his final year in office. He also compared the push for gun control in the US to the movements that helped abolished slavery, gave women the vote and granted equal rights to LGBT people.
“All of us should be able to work together to find a balance that declares the rest of our rights are also important,” he said.
“Our right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Christians in Charleston and that was denied Jews in Kansas City and that was denied to Muslims in Chapel Hill and Oak Creek. And they had rights, too.”
He continued: “Our right to peaceful assembly. That right was robbed to moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette. And from first graders in Newtown. First graders. And from every family that never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet in a gun.”
Mr Obama laid out executive action he is taking to require more gun sellers to get licences and more gun buyers to undergo background checks.
Under the changes, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will issue guidelines intended to narrow exceptions to a system that requires sellers to check with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether buyers have criminal records, are charged with crimes or have mental health conditions that would bar them from owning a gun.
He also said the administration will fund research of gun-safety technology.
“If we have the technology to unlock your phone without the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same for our guns?” Mr Obama said. “If a child can’t open up a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull the trigger on a gun.”
Any changes to gun rules in America are fraught with political risk. The US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment gives Americans the right to have arms, a right that is fiercely defended.
The stocks of gunmakers Smith & Wesson Holding Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc have climbed since the announcement. On Tuesday morning, Smith & Wesson jumped was up 10 per cent to $US25.58 a share and Sturm Ruger was up more than six per cent at $US65.46.
Legal challenges to the changes are expected and Republican presidential candidates have promised to reverse his order if they win the White House.
But Mr Obama, entering his eighth and last year in office, has said his measures are within his authority and consistent with the Constitution.
KEY ELEMENTS OF OBAMA’S PLAN
Requiring background checks
The core of Mr Obama’s move involves firming up the existing system for conducting background checks on gun sales, notably by closing the “gun show loophole” which exempts dealers at gun shows or online from conducting a background check before selling a weapon.
Strengthening the background check system
Authorities will act to make the National Instant Criminal Background Check System more efficient, including improving state reporting to the system, hiring 230 more examiners to swiftly process checks around the clock, and modernising digital aspects of NICS.
Licences for all sellers
Anyone “engaged in the business” of selling firearms must now be licensed as a dealer, which would require that person or entity to perform background checks for all gun sales. There is no specific threshold that triggers the licensing requirement, and those who sell exclusively online or at gun shows can be considered dealers just as is a person running a brick-and-mortar store. Failure to comply with licensing requirements may result in a five-year prison sentence and a $US250,000 fine.
Expanding mental health treatment
“Significant” new resources are being dedicated to boosting access to mental health care, including a $US500 million proposal to increase service capacity, and ensuring that people with mental illness are prevented from acquiring guns. The Social Security Administration is to ensure that those with documented mental health issues are reported into NICS.
Reporting patients with mental health issues
The reforms enable health care providers to report names of patients with mental health issues into the background check system. Health care privacy rules prevent doctors from sharing such data without consent of their patients, but the administration rules now allow health care providers to report to the NICS “limited demographic and other necessary information about these individuals.”
Improving gun law enforcement
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch is vowing to conduct “smart and effective enforcement” of existing gun laws, including tracking illegal online firearms trafficking and enhancing the ballistics system that can help investigators link violent crimes across jurisdictions. Mr Obama’s 2017 budget will include funding for 200 new agents to help enforce gun laws.
Researching gun safety technology
Mr Obama wants to boost research efforts to improve “smart gun technology,” and has directed the Pentagon, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security to increase research on technology that would reduce accidents and improve tracing of lost or stolen guns. The agencies must report back to Mr Obama in 90 days with strategy outlines.
Combating domestic violence
Ms Lynch issued a memo to US Attorney’s Offices to renew domestic violence outreach efforts. The goal is to provide additional resources for state, local and tribal law enforcement and for community groups to help fight the scourge and prevent domestic abusers from obtaining guns.