His face wet with tears, President Obama on Tuesday implored the country to rally behind a series of executive actions he said are intended to prevent another mass shooting in the United States.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama portrayed his unilateral moves — including a controversial expansion of background checks for gun purchases — as steps that must be taken “because people are dying.”
The country, he said, can uphold the Second Amendment and still protect the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that was denied to the 20 first-graders who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
Obama has called the Newtown shooting the darkest day of his presidency, and he stopped for a moment to gather his composure after invoking it.
“First-graders,” Obama repeated as tears began to trickle down his face. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”
The outpouring of emotion is rare for Obama, who is famous for his stoic persona.
But on the issue of gun violence, the president has let his feelings show, at times becoming visibly frustrated when addressing the mass shootings that have become a recurring horror during his seven years in office.
Last June, he led thousands of mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” during a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney, one of nine victims of the massacre at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
And in October, the president was visibly angry after students were gunned down at a community college in Oregon. Gun violence, he said then, is “something we should politicize.”
Facing his final year in office, the president on Tuesday suggested he had no choice but to act alone on gun control, citing the refusal of Congress to support his preferred policies.
The president’s post-Newtown push for near-universal background checks for gun purchasers ran aground in the Senate in 2013, a defeat he has lamented frequently since then.
Obama on Tuesday repeatedly referred to the background-check measure as a “common-sense” reform that Republicans and Democrats should be able to support.
“The bill before Congress three years ago met that test,” Obama said Tuesday. “Unfortunately too many senators failed theirs. In fact, we know that background checks make a difference.”
The president’s latest actions, which sidestep Congress, are designed to make more gun sales subject to background checks and beef up enforcement of existing laws. But their narrow scope also reflects the limits of executive power, with Obama having exhausted most of the policy moves available to him after Newtown.
White House officials anticipate that gun-rights groups will challenge the new actions in court, and a Republican successor could quickly reverse them.
Even as the president argued the merits of his policies, he cautioned that “Congress still needs to act” to prevent guns from falling into the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
But it was clear that Obama’s remarks did little to sway his opponents, both in and out of Congress.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) ripped Obama as having chosen “to engage in political rhetoric instead of offering meaningful solutions to our nation’s pressing problems.”
“The American people do not need more emotional, condescending lectures that are completely devoid of facts,” said Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm.
“From day one, the president has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding,” added Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment.”
While Obama used his remarks to call for national unity, he didn’t temper his attacks on Republicans and gun-rights groups. He drew a standing ovation from the gun control activists and victims’ families assembled in the East Room when he accused groups such as the NRA of “holding Congress hostage.”
Obama jabbed GOP politicians, including presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who say he doesn’t believe in the Constitution’s right to bear arms.
“This is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns,” he said. “You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm.”
And he challenged Ryan and other Republicans to make good on their promise to fix the nation’s mental health system, which they have said is the real problem when it comes to mass shootings.
Obama’s actions include a request to lawmakers for $500 million to enhance mental health services.
“For those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is,” he said.
Despite doubts about Obama’s ability to change the gun debate, the White House clearly sees political benefits to focusing on the issue.
Democrats have almost universally cheered the president’s actions, including the party’s presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
Vice President Biden is continuing the weeklong PR push Wednesday with a round of local TV interviews in states with competitive Senate races, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.
He’ll also appear on stations in communities hit by high-profile shootings, including Hartford, Conn. — near Newtown — and Charleston.
Biden will speak to WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., where a reporter and cameraman were shot dead last August during a live broadcast.
— This story was updated at 8:20 p.m.