Analysis: Newtown massacre compelled Obama to address gun violence

"The President reacts as John Brennan briefs him on the details of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said during a TV interview that this was the worst day of his Presidency." SOURCE: Souza


On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza broke a window and forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Armed with an AR-15 Bushmaster rifle and 30-round ammunition magazines, Lanza was able to shoot and fatally wound 26 people – including 20 first grade students – by the time police arrived 3 minutes after the break-in.

President Barack Obama described the Sandy Hook shooting as the “worst day of his Presidency.” Choking back tears that December afternoon, Obama asked Americans to set aside politics and “come together and take meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this.” 

Newtown wasn’t the first – nor the last – deadly mass shooting that occurred during Obama’s first term.

Some of the high-profile mass shootings include: the January 2011 Tucson shooting that killed 6 and wounded 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting that killed 12 and wounded 58; the August 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that killed 6 and wounded 4; and days before the Newtown shooting, a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire on holiday shoppers at the Clackamas Town Center in Oregon, killing 2 and gravely wounding 1. (Notably, the gunmen in all of the aforementioned shootings, including Newtown, used semi-automatic weapons equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines.)

But the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary was a turning point for Obama and compelled him to truly address the issue of gun violence, which had not been a political priority for the White House despite multiple high-profile mass shootings.

This time – instead of simply issuing statements expressing condolences as he has done following the deadly mass shootings in Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Clackamas, Oregon – Obama didn’t bow to political pressure from the powerful gun lobby; he followed up with concrete actions.

Read more: Transcript: President Barack Obama presents plan to reduce gun violence

On Wednesday, Obama signed 23 executive orders to strengthen the enforcement of existing gun laws.

Some of the measures he approved include:

  • toughening enforcement against illegal “straw” gun purchases (or when someone buys guns on behalf of individuals – i.e. felons – who are prohibited from owning guns);
  • providing incentives for schools to hire police offers and fund trainings on how to deal with active shooter situations;
  • improving access to mental health services for low-income individuals covered by Medicaid;
  • improving and updating information to the National Instant Background Check system;
  • providing states with more incentives to regularly update information to the National Instant Background Check system;
  • authorizing the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to conduct research on the gun violence epidemic, including the causes and effective prevention efforts;
  • and requiring federal law enforcement agencies to conduct background checks and trace guns seized in criminal investigations.

Read more: List of 23 executive actions signed by President Barack Obama to curb gun violence

The President also urged Congress to pass “common-sense measures” to curb gun violence. Obama proposed 4 specific measures for Congress to consider:

1. Require universal background check for all gun sales, including transactions that take place at gun shows and between private sellers. Right now, the law only requires federal background checks for gun purchases from a licensed dealer. However, the White House pointed out that an estimated 40% of gun transactions are not subjected to background checks because they take place between private sellers and at gun shows. “If you want to buy a gun – whether it’s from a licensed dealer or a private seller – you should at least have to show you are not a felon or somebody legally prohibited from buying one. This is common sense,” said Obama.

2. Reinstate the assault weapons ban, which was allowed to expire in 2004 under the Bush administration, and limit ammunition magazine capacity to 10 rounds. “The type of assault rifle used in Aurora, for example, when paired with high-capacity magazines, has one purpose – to pump out as many bullets as possible, as quickly as possible; to do as much damage,” Obama explained. “That’s what allowed the gunman in Aurora to shoot 70 people – 70 people – killing 12 in a matter of minutes. Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater.”

3. Toughen enforcement against illegal “straw” purchasers. “Congress needs to help, rather than hinder, law enforcement as it does its job.  We should get tougher on people who buy guns with the express purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals.  And we should severely punish anybody who helps them do this,” said Obama.

4. Confirm a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) – a post that has been left vacant for more 6 years. (Obama is nominating the current interim ATF director Todd Jones for the spot.)

“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 is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try,” Obama said. “I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen…I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale. I believe most of them agree that if America worked harder to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one that occurred in Newtown. That’s what these reforms are designed to do. They’re common-sense measure.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) responded to Obama’s proposed gun measures by claiming that the reforms would adversely affect “only honest, law-abiding gun owners”.


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