His proposals would not have stopped the sale of guns used in recent high-profile mass shootings. They may hurt fellow Democrats at the polls next fall. And they will immediately be challenged in court.
So why did President Barack Obama implement a series of executive actions on guns Tuesday with the very real chance that a Republican successor would repeal them next year?
Embarking on his final year in the White House, Obama is looking to solidify his legacy. He wants to claim credit for doing something, anything, to help solve one of America’s most vexing issues, even if it’s just symbolic. Besides, many Democrats are no longer shying away from the contentious issue now that public opinion polls show that Americans support gun restrictions by wide margins.
But it’s more than that: Mass shooting after mass shooting has left Obama fuming.
“Look at it from his perspective; this has got to be frustrating. There’s little he can do,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “But when you’re frustrated and you can’t do anything else, you use the tools you have.”
Obama’s actions are much more modest than the ones he has urged Congress to pass with no success.
He will expand the number of background checks on gun purchases by requiring more sellers – including those at stores, gun shows and on the Internet –to get licenses. He will direct officials to conduct more gun research, urge more domestic violence prosecutions, keep better track of lost guns and make it easier for states to share mental health information.
Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives.
President Barack Obama
Aides and activists also say that Obama, once reluctant to speak about the issue, will use his last year in office to launch a yearlong campaign urging states and localities to do what they can to curb gun violence, which leads to 30,000 deaths in the United States each year.
“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” said Obama, who openly wiped away tears Tuesday when speaking about the 20 first-graders killed in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Gun violence is one of the only issues that have led the usually unflappable president to show his emotions in public, from crying and cracking his voice to chastising lawmakers and leading a congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.”
At the White House on Tuesday, Obama surrounded himself with victims of gun violence, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in Arizona in 2011, and Jennifer Pinckney, whose husband, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was killed in Charleston last year. They interrupted his speech several times to applaud, and after he listed the names of cities that had endured mass shootings, some in the audience uttered: “Too many, too many.”
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“Can you imagine what this must be like for him?” said Jo Comerford, campaign director for MoveOn, a liberal group that has advocated for background checks for years. “He feels these gun deaths personally as a father, as a husband, as a man, as a president. He was coming home to a promise he made himself – and the nation – that he wanted to get this done.”
But while advocates for gun restrictions praised Obama, some privately wondered why he’d waited until his final year to act. They have been asking him to impose similar executive actions for years, most forcefully after the Newtown shooting.
“A lot of these ideas existed for several years,” acknowledged Tim Daly, director for campaigns, guns and crime at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research center that made similar recommendations in 2013 and has worked closely with the administration.
White House officials repeatedly declined to say this week why Obama didn’t act earlier. But a senior administration official who’s knowledgeable about the process but isn’t authorized to speak publicly said in December that some of the ideas under consideration now had been discussed in 2013 but “didn't get to closure” for a number of reasons.
“That was a sprint,” a second official said. “Where we took a bunch of things that were out there and pushed them over the finish line.” This time, the official said, “some of these things are a lot more complex.”
The timing of this announcement, in the eighth and final year of his presidency, demonstrates not only political exploitation but a fundamental lack of seriousness.
Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s legislative branch
During his first term, Obama avoided gun control, an issue that was unlikely to win him political points or bring him legislative success.
But after the Newtown shooting – which he describes as the worst day of his presidency – Obama implored Congress to act and signed two dozen mostly modest executive actions. After Congress failed to expand background checks, an angry Obama blasted lawmakers, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Since then, the president has continued to visit with grieving families and has counseled communities torn apart by mass shootings. In October, after a shooting at an Oregon college left 10 dead, Obama told his aides to “scrub” the law to see whether more could be done.
Democratic political consultant Drew Lieberman said acting was a “no-lose” situation for Obama at this point in his presidency, when he has an eye on his legacy. “Even if he doesn’t get it done, he can be viewed as the guy who took a stand,” he said.
Obama doesn’t seem to mind that his announcement this week has pushed the hot-button issue to the front of the presidential campaign, even if it may hurt moderate Democrats in swing congressional districts. He said gun violence was “something we should politicize.”
Obama will speak about gun violence in a prime-time town hall meeting Thursday night on CNN
Republicans accused Obama of overreaching yet again and vowed to challenge him in court, which could delay the actions until after he leaves office next January. Already, his 2014 plan to defer deporting millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally is on hold as a legal battle wages on.
Several GOP presidential candidates have pledged to undo Obama’s actions if they are elected.
“No matter what President Obama says,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “his word does not trump the Second Amendment.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this article.