President Barack Obama unveiled a set of new gun control measures on Tuesday, a step he says he was forced to take by Congress’ inaction on the issue. “Five years ago this week, a sitting member of Congress and five others were shot at a supermarket in Arizona,” he said, referencing the 2011 shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Today's address was not the first time the president has had to address a mass shooting, and unfortunately, it might not be the last. “We have become numb to it, and we start thinking this is normal,” Obama said.
On Saturday, the White House announced that Obama had been investigating potential executive actions on gun control, a unilateral action that would not involve Congress, which has been hesitant to touch the issue. Opponents criticized the move, saying Obama is overstepping his powers by avoiding congressional approval. But Obama refused to accept excuses for inaction. “Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions that we can take that are within my legal authority.” The executive actions, revealed in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, fall into four broad strokes: improving safety checks on the guns themselves, improving enforcement of existing laws, aiding the mentally ill, and perhaps most importantly, expanding background check requirements. While Obama doesn’t have the power to require universal background checks, he is broadening the category for who must conduct them. The new definition of “gun seller” will include individuals who were previously considered small scale and not regulated. Now, any individual or business that sells guns must apply for a federal dealer’s license, which requires them to conduct background checks on potential buyers. The move is intended to help close the "gun-show loophole." Many gun sales between private individuals or sales conducted online were made without background checks or records. According to The Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, an estimated 40% of guns transfers in the U.S. are done by unlicensed sellers. In 2013, 67,000 guns were posted for sale online by private, unlicensed sellers. Lax laws can lead to tragedy. The Violence Policy Center, a national organization working to end gun deaths, found that states with the highest rate of gun ownership and the most lenient gun violence prevention laws had the highest rates of gun death in the country. The organization judged the strength or weakness of gun laws according to whether each state added any significant regulation on top of federal laws, such as restricting certain types of heavy weaponry, requiring a permit for gun ownership, or regulating the carrying of firearms in public.
The study, which used data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that Alaska, where more than 50% of households have a gun, had the highest rate of gun fatalities, at nearly 20 deaths per 100,000 residents. In Hawaii, where only just over 12% of households own guns, that rate was not quite three per 100,000. Obama's new actions will also promote the federal enforcement of gun safety laws, with increases in staff and financing to keep track of law violations, including lost or stolen guns, and protecting domestic abusers from accessing guns. As well as working with researchers and the private sector to improve safety on the guns themselves, to reduce accidental fatalities and injuries. “If we can set it up that you can’t unlock your phone unless you have the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing with our guns?” he asked. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure they can’t pull a trigger on a gun.” Additionally on the agenda, Obama has earmarked $500 million to expand mental health care across the country. He called on politicians who dismiss mass shooters as a few mentally ill bad apples to support him. “Here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is.” Obama’s executive action isn’t going to solve all the problems. There is only so much that he can do without the approval of Congress — he can’t, for example, require universal background checks, one of the measures he asked Congress to pass after the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 small children. He visibly teared up as he reflected on the 2012 shooting, and called on America to commit to the long haul. “It’s not going to happen overnight… but a lot of things don’t happen overnight,” he said, referencing movements for women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, and LGBTQ rights. “Just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try.”