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Obama Takes Gun Violence Case to Americans in Impassioned Address

  • Mary Alice Salinas

U.S. President Barack Obama outlined his initiatives to curb gun violence during an impassioned address to the American people Tuesday, saying, “People are dying, and the constant excuses for inaction no longer do.”

Surrounded in the White House East Room by gun violence survivors, the families of those killed by firearms, gun control advocates and some prominent lawmakers, the president sharply criticized Congress for failing to pass stricter gun control measures. He called on lawmakers and the American people to “find the courage to do more.”

Each year, firearms claim the lives of more than 30,000 Americans in mass killings, suicides, domestic violence and other incidents, according to the White House.

“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency,” the president said. “It doesn't happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”

Common-sense measures

The White House late Monday announced a series of what it described as “commonsense” measures Obama is implementing using his executive authority, a move that bypasses the Republican-led Congress, which has rejected previous attempts to tighten gun control measures.

Those executive actions will require more gun sellers to get licenses and more gun buyers to undergo background checks. They also will tighten enforcement of existing gun laws, increase mental health treatment, and expand research into gun safety technology.

The issue has generated bitter debate and divided the American public. Critics argue the measures will do nothing to reduce gun violence and will defy the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right to bear arms.

Obama rejected those claims and said the rights of people killed in a string of mass shootings in the U.S. were violated.

Referring to some of those massacres, Obama argued, “Our right to worship freely and safely –- that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek,” he said to vigorous applause.

At times, the president appeared passionate and even emotional. At one point, he wiped a tear from his face as he recalled 20 young children and six others killed in the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

"Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad," he said.

For months, the Democratic president has said he would take action within his executive authority to tighten gun restrictions, if the Congress failed to do so. Obama said the new rules fall "well within" his legal authority as president.

GOP reaction

Republicans, who generally oppose gun control measures, accused the president of overreaching his authority.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said the president’s plans “goes after the most law abiding of citizens,” rather than after criminals and terrorists.

“No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment,” said Ryan. “We will conduct vigilant oversight.”

Ryan warned the president’s action likely will be challenged in court and could be overturned by a Republican president.

Many Republican presidential candidates already have said they will reverse the rules if elected.

WATCH: Candidates speak out on gun control

GOP front-runner Donald Trump told CNN on Monday that Obama's proposals were the first step toward tighter restrictions on gun owners, saying: "Pretty soon you won't be able to get guns. It's another step in the way of not getting guns."

The National Rifle Association, a powerful gun rights lobbying group, also vowed to look into the new rules to see if it would challenge them in court.

Due process concerns

Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said he worried that the president’s actions could encroach on due process by giving the government the power to deny gun ownership to those it considered mentally incompetent.

In the Senate, the lead Republican sponsor of legislation that would expand background checks for gun sales criticized Obama for taking action on the issue without Congress.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said, “The president has abused these actions in the past and exceeded the boundaries of the law. This should not be allowed under our constitutional framework.”

Toomey worked with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia in 2013 on a bill that would have expanded background checks for all gun purchases, but it was unable to get the 60 votes needed to advance.

Past time to act

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, embraced the president’s gun safety measures.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, “The vast majority of Americans support common sense action to reduce gun violence.”

She and many other Democratic members of Congress said it was past time for Congress to act to curb what they called an “epidemic” of gun violence.

An audience member holds a hand lettered sign calling for further gun control at a campaign stop with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Nashua, New Hampshire Oct. 16, 2015.

An audience member holds a hand lettered sign calling for further gun control at a campaign stop with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Nashua, New Hampshire Oct. 16, 2015.

More background checks

One key element of Obama's plan is a measure that will widen the definition of a gun dealer. The White House hopes this will require more businesses selling firearms, including those at gun shows, to get licenses and therefore be required to conduct background checks.

"We intend to make this system more efficient and make it more comprehensive," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. "The goal is keeping bad actors away from firearms and also to make it easier for authorities to make sure that the gun laws are properly followed and enforced."

Part of the effort also includes increasing by 50 percent the number of FBI personnel who staff the national background check system, said Lynch.

Demonstrators participate in an anti-gun violence rally sponsored by One Million Moms for Gun Control in New York, Jan. 21, 2013.

Demonstrators participate in an anti-gun violence rally sponsored by One Million Moms for Gun Control in New York, Jan. 21, 2013.

Public opinion

Recent polls show an increase in the number of Americans who support background checks on those seeking to purchase firearms.

A new survey by Webster's research center found that 85 percent of gun owners believe there should be background checks for every individual seeking to buy a gun.

Each year, firearms claim the lives of more than 30,000 Americans in mass killings, suicides, domestic violence and other incidents, according to the White House.

VOA's William Gallo and Capitol Hill correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.

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