The June 12 massacre in Orlando is the 15th mass murder since Obama came to power. What has the American president done against the gun lobby in eight years? Not a lot …
On June 12, as with all the deadly shootings that have marked his administration, Barack Obama once more had to speak out after the Orlando massacre; a speech that has become a sad “routine,” to quote the phrase the Democratic president used in October 2015. Because even the killings at the gay club Pulse, the deadliest killings in the United States since 9/11, will not allow Obama to pass significant reform relating to gun sales.
Over the course of his two terms, Obama’s efforts have been repeatedly hampered not only by the omnipresence of the all-powerful National Rifle Association, the American gun lobby, but also by the feebleness of numerous members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. As a result, he has never succeeded in creating lasting change on the issue, which will, without a doubt, remain one of his greatest failures.
Belated Interest in the Issue
But has Obama done everything possible to regulate the sale of firearms? The subject hasn’t always been his priority. In 2008, at the start of his first term, other subjects hogged his attention, from handling the economic crisis to reforming the health care system. The subject of firearms was relatively absent from the political scene. And yet it was only in the first two years of his presidency that the Democrats held a majority in both houses, an indispensable condition for passing ambitious reforms.
The major turning point came on Dec. 14, 2012. That day, 20 children and six adults lost their lives at the hands of a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The president was moved to tears in front of the cameras. The Sandy Hook massacre, which Obama would later call “the worst day” of his presidency, was a pivotal moment in his fight for tighter regulations: “We need to feel the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ Because people are dying. And the constant excuses for inaction no longer do, no longer suffice.”
A Failed Attempt
Currently, each American state has its own legislation on gun licensing and the sale of firearms, from the most relaxed (in Florida and Georgia) to the strictest (such as New York or Illinois). Each state has the sovereign right whether or not to recognize licenses issued by other states. In Florida, where the Orlando shooting took place, you just need to be 21 years old, submit to a criminal record check, and then wait three days after purchasing the gun to receive it. The gun doesn’t even need to be registered, and there is no requirement that the gun be identified as lost or stolen. In Georgia, being over the age of majority and a quick check on the buyer’s background is enough to leave the store with a gun.
Obama has wanted to pass a federal law to standardize regulations since 2012; to standardize the criminal record check and psychological exams, allow government agencies to know if someone under surveillance buys a firearm (as may have been the case for the Orlando shooter), and limit the sale of assault rifles – all elements which are currently absent from American legislation.
But in 2013, Obama could not manage to obtain the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to enact his gun control reforms. His first bill, which required checks on buyers’ backgrounds even for gun show sales, was rejected by 41 Republicans and four Democrats, a real humiliation. Yet this was one of the least ambitious measures. “This was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” he stated, reproaching members of Congress for being incapable of rising above their own interests and political maneuvers, too scared that the gun lobby or a “vocal minority of gun owners would come after them.”
An American Peculiarity
Why did Republican members of Congress, and even some Democrats, block the bill so completely and refuse to begin even the slightest negotiation on the subject? The first reason comes down to the American Constitution, this untouchable text, almost sacred, whose initial amendments (including the famous Second Amendment on carrying firearms), written in 1787, are considered by many to be an intrinsic part of American identity. The Second Amendment stipulates:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
But it is subject to interpretation.
As a result, some people, such as Jeb Bush, see it as a pure and simple defense of their right to carry firearms without limitations, while others see this as over-interpretation of a text that was only intended to guarantee citizens’ safety in the context of the War of Independence.
And it is precisely safety that is one of the key arguments of the pro-gun lobby. There are many who argue that it’s enough for the “good guys,” the potential victims of mass murders, to themselves be armed in order for the situation to resolve itself. (And so Donald Trump stated the day after the attacks in Paris, saying that it all could have been avoided if the doormen at the Bataclan had been armed.) Furthermore, these politicians are often the first, alongside the NRA, to stir up fears about the total confiscation of firearms as soon as a reform, however unambitious, is suggested. It’s an effective political maneuver. The financial and political power of the NRA in the political wings cannot be underestimated.
The 2013 speech, which was more aggressive, marked the end of the most active period of the Obama administration on the subject of guns. Two years later, a “terrible” routine therefore took hold: the routine of these tragic events, the routine of ever more numerous bereavements, and the routine of speeches each more absurd than the last faced with Congressional opposition to change.
But in January 2016, Obama decided to force his way through. He declared he now wants to use executive orders to push the issue forward. The president has announced 23 executive orders whose main advantage is to close a legal loophole that until now has allowed occasional gun sellers (such as at shows) to operate without a federal license and therefore avoid having to check their customers’ identities. From now on, these occasional sellers, just like online sellers, will have to go through the authorities to obtain a license to sell firearms, and will be required to check their customers against the FBI’s database.
While this represents a certain amount of progress, those close to the president must know that no significant reform, such as a ban — or simple restrictions — on the sale of assault rifles, will see the light of day without going through Congress.
And so the 44th president of the United States departs with a measly track record. It remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton will succeed where her predecessor has failed should she be elected come November. Listening to her speeches on the subject, which are far more aggressive than Obama’s during the 2008 campaign, leaves no doubt that the debate will undoubtedly resume with even greater intensity.