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Obama Calls Congress to Act on Gun Legislation; Reactions to Obama's Gun Initiatives

Aired January 16, 2013 - 12:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.

And that's why last month, I asked Joe to lead an effort, along with members of my Cabinet, to come up with some concrete steps we can take right now to keep our children safe, to help prevent mass shootings, to reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country.

And we can't put this off any longer.

Just last Thursday, as TV networks were covering one of Joe's meetings on this topic, news broke of another school shooting, this one in California.

In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun -- 900 in the past month.

And every day we wait the number will keep growing.

So I'm putting forward a specific set of proposals based on the work of Joe's task force. And in the days ahead I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality.

Because 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's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.

And I'm gonna do my part. As soon as I'm finished speaking here I will sit at that desk and I will sign a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence.

We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system. We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them, and develop emergency preparedness plans. We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence, even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator. And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to de-fund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it. And Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.

We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.

These are a few of the 23 executive actions that I'm announcing today, but as important as these steps are, they are in no way a substitute for action from members of Congress. To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act, and Congress must act soon. And I'm calling on Congress to pass some very specific proposals right away.

First, it's time for Congress to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun.


The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that's kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun.

But it's hard to enforce that law, when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check. That's not safe. That's not smart. That's not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers.

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. And an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with us on the need for universal background checks, including more than 70 percent of the National Rifle Association's members according to one survey. So there's no reason we can't do this.

Second, Congress should restore a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10 round limit for magazines.


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 using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage. And 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. A majority of Americans agree with us on this. And, by the way, so did Ronald Reagan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment, who wrote to Congress in 1994, urging them -- this is Ronald Reagan speaking -- urging them to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of military-style assault weapons.


And, finally, 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 expressed purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals. And we should severely punish anybody who helps them do this.

Since Congress hasn't confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in six years, they should confirm Todd Jones, who will be -- who has been acting and I will be nominating for the post.


And at a time when budget cuts are forcing many communities to reduce their police force, we should put more cops back on the job and back on our streets.

Now, let me be absolutely clear: Like most Americans, 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. There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting or sport or protection or collection.

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 commonsense measures. They have the support of the majority of the American people.

And yet that doesn't mean any of this is going to be easy to enact or implement. If it were, we'd already have universal background checks. The ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines never would have been allowed to expire. More of our fellow Americans might still be alive, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and graduations.

This will be difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they'll do everything they can to block any commonsense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.

The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their membership says this time must be different, that this time we must do something to protect our communities and our kids.

I will put everything I've got into this -- and so will Joe -- but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it. And by the way, that doesn't just mean from certain parts of the country. We're going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important. It can't just be the usual suspects. We have to examine ourselves in our hearts, and ask yourselves what is important? This will not happen, unless the American people demand it. If parents and teachers, police officers, and pastors, if hunters and sportsman, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough. We've suffered too much pain, and care too much about our children to allow this to continue, then change will -- change will come.

That's what it's going to take. You know, in the letter that Julia wrote me, she said "I know that laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard."


Julia, I will try very hard. But she's right. The most important changes we can make, depend on congressional action. They need to bring these proposals up for a vote, and the American people need to make sure that they do. Get them on record. Ask your member of Congress if they support universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ask them if they support renewing a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

And if they say no, ask them why not? Ask them what's more important? Doing whatever it takes to get a -- an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns? Or, giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?


This is the land of the free, and it always will be. As Americans we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us. But we've also long recognized, as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities.

Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other. We have the right to worship freely and safely; that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The right to assemble peacefully; that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.

That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown; and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they'd lose a loved one to -- to a bullet, those rights are at stake. We're responsible.

You know, when I visited Newtown last month I spent some private time with many of the families who'd lost their children that day. And one was the family of Grace McDonnell. Grace's parents are here. Grace was seven years old when she was struck down, just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I'm told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of becoming a painter.

And so just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings. And I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Office.

And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace, and I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The president's now signing 23 executive actions, as he's calling them, 23 separate orders that he's giving right now that do not require congressional authorization to go forward. I guess that one signature represents all 23 of the executive actions that he has signed.

He's now giving a hug to these young kids who wrote letters to the president, asking him to take these kinds of actions, to do something to prevent another disaster at an elementary school or a high school or a college campus that the president was talking about.

He accepted the recommendations of the vice president, Joe Biden. There you see the vice president with the kids, as well.

Let's talk a little bit about what we have just seen. Gloria Borger is here. John King is with me, as well.

Gloria, first to you. These 23 actions and they represent everything from issuing a presidential memorandum to require a federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system to going ahead and actually nominating a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He's got a lot of specifics in here. He could do this without legislation, but the big stuff requires legislation.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yeah, the big such requires Congress to act, as he pointed out. And I think what we heard today was a president who said to us, I'm putting everything I've got behind this. I intend to use whatever might this office holds.

But he was also a president who made it clear that he understands the political realities of all of this, that it's going to be difficult for members on his side of the aisle, as well as Republicans, to sign on to something like renewing the ban on assault weapons.

And it was sort of symmetry for me, by the way, to see Joe Biden standing there with the president. Joe Biden in 1990 was the person who was the point man in the Senate to get that original crime bill through. That included the assault weapons ban and he has seen it expire but he also saw the Democrats lose control of the House very much as a result of that vote.

So, the president clearly is under no illusions about what he's facing, but I've been told that they're going to do this public outreach as a political campaign, using some of the grassroots apparatus -- our congressional team reported this yesterday -- using that apparatus to get out the vote. They're going to put a lot of money behind it. They've got Mayor Bloomberg's money behind this. They're going to get police officers, sheriffs from all around the country to try and mobilize support.

So, this is going to be a very large political campaign run by Democrats to convince people on their side of the aisle that maybe they should take the risk and convince some Republicans that perhaps one or two of these things they could go along with.

BLITZER: You know, John, the three most sensitive areas the president is now beginning to move on, he wants background checks, not only for people who go to a gun store that want to purchase a gun, but go to a gun show, go online to buy a gun, sell a gun to a friend or a neighbor. Anyone who purchases a gun should have a background check. He wants a ban on the military-style assault weapons and ban on high- capacity magazines, more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Those are high hurdles for him to overcome in a Republican majority in the House where even a bunch of Democrats will be concerned about what he's proposing.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In the current math, he can't do it in the House, so he needs to change the current math and that requires presidential leadership. You heard him ask for help. I can't do this by myself. I need the parents to speak out. I need local officials to speak out. I need you to pressure them when they come home from Washington.

He's also -- this is an interesting challenge for this president. As you know, Wolf, from covering the White House, your time is precious, especially in the second term. He has a short window. He wants to get this fiscal stuff figured out. He wants to do comprehensive immigration reform. That's a confrontation with the Republican base. He wants to do sweeping gun control measures. That's a confrontation not just with the Republican base, but including potentially his Democratic leader in the United States Senate.

Will President Obama, the leader of the Democratic party, call out his Democratic leader in the Senate? Will he have a fight with his own leadership? Is it that important to him? When push comes to shove, the Congress says, we can give you this, Mr. President, not that, will he put the whole weight of the office behind it, do whatever he takes?

That's a huge test when he has many priorities and he's thinking of what any second term president -- about his legacy.

BORGER: Or endanger of the control of the Senate because you've got some somebody up from Montana, South Dakota, Louisiana, gun states.

KING: So, will he deliver? He says it's more important. He says it's more important.

BLITZER: Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. You're in the auditorium over there where the president spoke. The vice president spoke. The president signed those executive orders.

Is the president ready to do everything he possibly cannot just to get background checks, make them universal but also to deal with the assault weapons and the magazine clips?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. The sense I've been getting from people who have come out of the meetings here with the vice president and I've been in contact with the White House is that they feel that the priority is on the background checks and on the high-capacity magazines and less so on the assault weapons ban.

Now, they insist that's because those two can do more good than the assault weapons ban, but we should also acknowledge the political reality that even senior Democrats are saying. The assault weapons ban probably cannot pass the House.

I point out that while the president was speaking, while the vice president was speaking, I got two letters on my e-mail, one from the governor of Mississippi, one from a sheriff in Lynn County, Oregon, both saying that the White House is exploiting this opportunity to try to crack down on the Second Amendment and they will do what they can do both fight this and resist enforcement of any of the president's executive actions.

The governor of Mississippi saying he's asked his lieutenant governor and his house speaker to see what they can do to prevent any of these executive actions from taking effect in the state of Mississippi.

Now, as Gloria said, there's an organization on the Democratic side to mobilize an effort against that and to spread the word and I can tell you that that will begin as soon as tomorrow. Organizing for America is involved in many of the grassroots groups, but the White House can't coordinate with them. So it's sort of a defuse effort that has to take place out in the country by these groups separate from the White House

One other point I'd make, Wolf, which is that we're told in terms of new moneys going to gun safety efforts, the White House is asking for some approximately $500 million in the 2014 budget that would go to new things including school safety, improved research from the centers of disease control, and more measures for school counselors and school resource officers, Wolf.

BLITZER: The research is a sensitive issue. Asking questions about gun safety, by and large, those are the questions, kinds of questions from the Centers of Disease Control, for example, were barred but under this new executive order the president has just signed, people will be able to go ahead and ask those kinds of questions, do that kind of research. A sensitive subject.

I want everyone to stand by. We're getting reaction from all sides. It's coming in quickly. Much more of our special coverage right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back, your special coverage here in the "CNN newsroom." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

We're getting immediate reaction from Republican leadership to what the president of the United States and the vice president just announced over at the White House.

Dana Bash is our chief congressional correspondent. Dana, are you getting some reaction from the speaker?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The speaker's spokesman, we should note, saying the House committees of jurisdiction will review the recommendations and, if the Senate passes a bill, we will take a look at that.

So, that really underscores what we have been reporting for the past several days, even weeks that the House Republicans are effectively a sideshow right now. Certainly what they are going to feel ultimately, if there is an ultimately, will matter, but right now the focus is on the senate and is on the president's fellow Democrats.

And so much of what he was saying and focusing on, and will focus on in the next few days, is going to be on people in his own party. That really is something that I think is important to underscore.

Couple things here. First of all, there was a lot of talk about Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, who's a gun owner. He's from the gun- rights state of Nevada. He has been very cautious saying that the Senate should be cautious, but my understanding from talking to a number of sources is that he's speaking for himself.

But he's also speaking from the perspective of political reality, that there are a number of people in his caucus who would potentially really get slammed for supporting anything.

So, that's why he wants to take it slow. He doesn't want his people to walk the plank and suddenly not be the Senate majority, lose the majority.

But the other thing I think is really important to keep in mind is just how different this is, kind of taking it up to 5,000 or 10,000 feet.

I cannot tell you how many times after so many of these tragedies, after one of their own, Gabby Giffords, was shot, calling up Senate Democratic sources saying, are you going to do anything? Nope. Nothing's changed. After Aurora, nope, nothing's changed.

No, Newtown changed the dialogue, the decision at the White House and here in Congress by some to put this issue, again, which was very, very difficult. For 10 years, Democrats didn't want to touch this. Now, at least, they're saying that they want to try.

BLITZER: Dana, stand by.

Not surprisingly, many gun rights advocates, they're pretty angry about the president's gun control plan. They say it goes way too far and they insist it tramples on the U.S. Constitution.

Joining us now from Austin, Texas, Republican state representative Steve Toth. Representative, thanks so much for joining us.

We're intrigued because you proposed legislation that would make it illegal in Texas for anyone to enforce a federal ban, shall we say, on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

Here's the question. If the federal government, if the House and the Senate pass this legislation that the president is asking for, he signs it into law, everyone in the United States would have to obey the law.

How would you avoid obeying the law?

STATE REP. STEVE TOTH (R), TEXAS: In Texas, we're going to do everything we can, Wolf.

First off, thanks for having me on. We're going to do everything we can to call people back to the belief and the understanding that we're a constitutional republic and that our rights do not come from Congress. Our rights come from God and are enumerated in the Constitution.

What they're proposing and here's what I really want to stress, he said that we will be judged, our generation will be judged, based on how we deal with this. Cotton-candy political solutions aren't going to fix this problem.

BLITZER: But the Congress, by the Constitution, is given the authority to pass legislation, to create the laws, to make the laws.

Once again, if they pass this legislation -- I'm not sure they will pass the legislation, but let's say they do pass the legislation banning the military-type assault weapons, the high-ammunition clips, a universal background checks for anyone buying a gun, whether at a gun show or online or from a private individual, if that is the law of the land, that's the Constitution, right? You've got to obey the law of the land.