President Obama made fighting gun violence his chief resolution for 2016 in a New Year’s Day address, calling it a major piece of “unfinished business” for his White House administration.
The President said Friday that he would meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday, his first day back at work after the year-end break, “to discuss our options” on executive actions to reduce the toll of firearm-related deaths and injuries.
As he marked the start of his final year as president, Obama expressed regret at the little progress made in the past seven years towards remedying the scourge of gun violence that claims more than 30,000 lives in America each year, saying that he gets so many letters from parents, teachers and children about the “epidemic of gun violence” that he can’t “sit around and do nothing.”
“My New Year’s resolution is to move forward on our unfinished business as much as I can,” he said in his weekly radio address. “That’s especially true for one piece of unfinished business, that’s our epidemic of gun violence.”
Obama asked citizens to join him in the fight against gun violence, noting that the gun lobby is “loud and well organized in its defense of effortlessly available guns for anyone,” and urging “the rest of us … to be just as passionate and well organized in our defense of kids.”
With time running out on his presidency, and with little prospect of reaching common ground with a Congress that has failed to pass a single piece of gun control legislation during his two terms in office, Obama is expected to make use of his executive powers to break through Republican obstruction on the issue of guns.
The U.S. has among the highest rates of gun ownership and gun violence in the world. Although the U.S. accounts for less than five percent of the global population, at least 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns worldwide are owned by Americans. In 2013 there were an estimated 357 million firearms in the U.S., exceeding the number of people in the country by about 40 million.
The U.S. firearm homicide rate is by far the highest in the developed world. According to 2012 estimates, the rate of gun murders in America is about 20 times the average for all other developed nations, meaning that Americans are 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country. We also experience a disproportionately high rate of mass shootings: Between 1983 and 2013, the U.S. experienced double the number of mass shootings than all 25 of our peer (OECD) nations combined, accounting for 66 percent of mass shootings during that period.
In his New Year’s address, the President said measures to be discussed with Lynch will focus on “keeping an irresponsible, dangerous few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.”
According to CNN and the New York Times, which cited gun control advocates familiar with the administration’s plans, Obama is expected to announce executive action to expand background checks on gun sales before his State of the Union address on January 12. Reports said the executive order will include measures to narrow — but not close — a loophole that allows many sales of guns online or at gun shows without background checks.
Under current federal law, background checks are required to be conducted by anyone “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, but this has largely applied only to licensed retailers, with gun collectors able to sell from their private collections without conducting a background check on the person purchasing the guns. As a result, 40 percent of gun sales in the country are made without a background check.
The executive order is expected to establish a maximum number of annual sales above which a seller would be considered “engaged in the business” and thus required to conduct background checks — a move that would help prevent unlicensed sellers who offer hundreds of thousands of guns for sale, mainly online, from taking advantage of the existing law’s ambiguity.
Stricter rules are also expected for reporting guns that are lost or stolen and never make it to the buyer, Politico reports.
‘Every single day’
Obama is taking the action against the backdrop of a relentless succession of shootings, which cast him each time in the role of “consoler-in-chief” to a grieving nation.
The president has made increasingly clear his frustration at the bloodshed, condemning Congress for its lack of action to curb gun violence even in the face of a startling increase in the frequency and fatality of mass shootings.
“Last month, we remembered the third anniversary of Newtown,” Obama said in his address, referring to the December 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school where 20 young children and six of their teachers were shot to death by a lone gunman armed with three semi-automatic assault weapons.
“This Friday, I’ll be thinking about my friend Gabby Giffords, five years into her recovery from the shooting in Tucson,” he continued, speaking of a former U.S. congresswoman and victim of another of the nation’s gun violence tragedies.
“All across America, survivors of gun violence and those who lost a child, a parent, a spouse to gun violence are forced to mark such awful anniversaries every single day, and yet Congress still hasn’t done anything to prevent what happened to them from happening to other families,” the president said.
Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama convened a task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, that resulted in a number of recommendations, including a bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks to virtually all gun sales. This measure, like others to reinstate the assault weapons ban and limit the size of magazines, all failed to pass through Congress thanks to staunch opposition from Republicans.
In fact, since the Columbine shooting spree in 1999, Congress has passed only a single new gun control measure — a law improving national background checks, which followed 2007’s Virginia Tech shooting.
Frustrated with the lack of action from Congress, Obama has vowed to use “whatever power this office holds” to put in place gun control measures via executive action. However, even with the executive orders expected to be announced soon, Congress would still need to pass a law to make background checks apply to all sellers and vendors.
The majority of Americans support the idea of background checks for gun shows and private sales. According to a July Pew Research Center survey, 85 percent favor such policies, and the sentiment crosses political and ideological lines: 79 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of those who say they prioritize gun rights over gun regulations also favor background checks for private sales.
Watch the President’s entire weekly address below: