WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) – President Barack Obama on Wednesday challenged the powerful gun lobby to “do the right thing” and end gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.
As CBS 2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported, Obama on Wednesday also unveiled a $500 million package of executive actions and legislative proposals aimed at reducing gun violence. The package includes a call on Congress to ban military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and it would close loopholes in the gun sale background check system.
Speaking to an audience of gun victims, Obama challenged Congress to enact the stricter measures, and challenged Americans to demand answers from their representatives if they do not.
“Ask them what’s more important – doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade,” Obama said.
And in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Obama sought to dramatize his message by sharing the stage with four children who wrote him letters seeking action.
One of them – Teajah Goode, 10 – wrote: “I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Connecticut. I thought I would write to you to stop gun violence. Thank you, Mr. President.”
Families of those killed in the massacre, as well as survivors of the shooting, were also in the audience, along with law enforcement officers and congressional lawmakers.
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged.”
CBS 2’s Maurice DuBois reported President Obama invited gun owners to help lobby lawmakers.
“If Americans of every background stand up and say enough we’ve suffered too much pain, then change will come,” he said.
Obama ended his remarks on an emotional note about 7-year-old Newtown victim Grace McDonnell. Her parents gave the President one of the girl’s paintings and it hangs in the study next to the oval office.
“Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace, and I think about the life that she lived, and most of all, I think about how when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us we must act now for Grace,” he said.
Meanwhile, as part of the $500 million plan, Obama also used his presidential powers to enact 23 measures that don’t require the backing of lawmakers.
The president’s executive actions include ordering federal agencies to make more data available for background checks, appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and directing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence.
The president’s long list of executive orders also includes:
- Ordering tougher penalties for people who lie on background checks and requiring federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.
- Ending limits that make it more difficult for the government to research gun violence, such as gathering data on guns that fall into criminal hands.
- Requiring federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.
- Giving schools flexibility to use federal grant money to improve school safety, such as by hiring school resource officers.
- Giving communities grants to institute programs to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them.
But the centerpiece sought reinstatement of the 2004 ban on assault rifles, universal background checks, and limiting gun clips to 10 bullets.
“While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil — if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”
The package was assembled by a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden.
“It’s been 33 days since the nation’s heart was broken,” Biden said, referring to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “We must do what we can now.”
Biden said he and the task force met with 229 groups before putting his recommendations together for the president, including law enforcement, public health officials, gun advocacy groups, hunters and religious leaders.
He said the recommendations were “based on the emerging consensus we heard from all the groups with whom we spoke.”
Leaders of the NRA were furious at the plan.
“Anybody who dies from any reason at the hands of a criminal, or somebody who’s insane, or in an accident, for that matter, is a tragedy. Nobody’s saying it isn’t,” said NRA President David Keene. “But what I am saying is that banning these firearms is not going to accomplish very much.”
The NRA began airing a Web ad calling Obama an “elite hypocrite” because Secret Service agents protect his children, but there are no armed guards at regular schools.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” a voiceover says in the ad.
The White House called the ad repugnant. But gun rights advocates insisted that the problem was not guns, but people who misuse them.
“They keep constantly blaming the gun,” said Jersey City gun store owner Frank Caso. “It’s the people who are using the firearms.”
Caso said he thinks gun owners are being persecuted.
“My feeling is every time there’s a shooting, right away, the gun becomes a tremendous issue,” Caso said. “I have yet to see where automobiles are involved in terrible accidents – they never blame the car. They always blame the driver. What’s the difference?”
The National Rifle Association also released the following statement after Obama’s announcement:
“Throughout its history, the National Rifle Association has led efforts to promote safety and responsible gun ownership. Keeping our children and society safe remains our top priority.
“The NRA will continue to focus on keeping our children safe and securing our schools, fixing our broken mental health system, and prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law. We look forward to working with Congress on a bi-partisan basis to find real solutions to protecting America’s most valuable asset – our children.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”
Other Elected Officials, Interest Groups React
Speaking at news conference Wednesday afternoon, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun control advocate, praised the president’s plan.
“Today it’s clear that the president and vice president heard us and they heard the American people,” he said. “The vast majority of Americans support common sense gun regulations and clearly the White House was listening.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was at the White House on behalf of Bloomberg as President Obama unveiled his gun control proposals.
After the announcement, Kelly voiced support for the reforms.
“This is common sense. These are common sense proposals. The Vice President said this is an effort to diminish the possibility, we know we’re not going to eliminate all gun violence. But it certainly [could] diminish the possibility of having another Newtown,” Kelly said. “Mayor Bloomberg, who has been a major force in this effort, I know is pleased with this proposal and I know also that he urges Congress to get on board quickly.”
“The President said it’s going to be a struggle but I believe all of the major law enforcement organizations will support the administration in this effort,” he added.
Commissioner Kelly also applauded Obama’s mention of the possibility of more police officers after economic issues caused many forces to shrink.
Gun control advocacy groups, like One Million Moms for Gun Control, applauded the president’s proposals.
“I think it’s important that Congress knows we are dedicated to this cause and we vote,” Kim Russel, national director of outreach, told 1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg.
The group says it is planning a march across the Brooklyn Bridge Monday and in Washington next week in support of the president’s plan.
But the reaction on Capitol Hill was muted. The office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was non-committal, but signaled no urgency to act on Obama’s proposals.
Obama’s announcement comes a day after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the toughest gun control law in the nation and the first since the Connecticut school shootings.
New York’s law includes a tougher assault-weapons ban and provisions to try to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who make threats.
“This is a complex, multifaceted problem and this is a comprehensive bill that addresses the full panorama and spectrum of issues that come up,” Cuomo said.
The NRA quickly responded to New York’s new laws, issuing the following statement:
“These gun control schemes have failed in the past and will have no impact on public safety and crime. While lawmakers could have taken a step toward strengthening mental health reporting and focusing on criminals, they opted for trampling the rights of law-abiding gun owners in New York and they did it under a veil of secrecy in the dark of night.”
Mayor Bloomberg plans to go to Washington on Friday to start lobbying Congress – and when he says lobby, he usually means digging deep into his pocket to take action.
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