Despite his pleas that changes could help prevent mass shootings like the one that killed 14 on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif., President Barack Obama seems resigned that he’s mostly powerless to overhaul the country’s gun laws.
Obama has urged stricter gun laws for much of his tenure, doing so during funerals and vigils for victims during his presidency. But with just 13 months remaining in office, even Obama appears resigned that the “common-sense gun safety laws” for which he often has advocated are out of his reach.
Two years ago, Obama spoke with conviction during a vigil in Newtown, Conn., for the victims — most of them children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Obama: ISIS a ‘Cancer’ with No Immediate Cure
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end,” Obama said then. “No single law — no set of laws — can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”
In late June, Obama told the BBC that failing to enact tougher gun laws, in part to help prevent additional mass shootings, is among his biggest regrets as president.
On Thursday, he appeared resigned to the limits of his power when Senate Republicans blocked Democratic-crafted measures that would have prevented individuals on the massive government terrorism watch list from legally purchasing firearms.
Sitting in the Oval Office, his hair noticeably whiter than during the Newtown speech and speaking in a subdued tone, the president acknowledged that when it comes to mass shootings, “many Americans sometimes feel as if there’s nothing we can do about it.”
He had no executive orders-in-waiting to announce — or even threaten to implement shy of congressional action. There were no calls or hastily arranged meetings with congressional leaders about what they could do to prevent would-be gunmen from legally obtaining a firearm and using them to carry out yet another mass slaughter.
Instead, he made a pitch to state governments to tighten their laws.
“It’s going to be important for all of us — including our legislatures — to see what we can do to make sure that when individuals decide that they want to do somebody harm, we’re making it a little harder for them to do it,” he said.
Pelosi on Gun Control: ‘We Can No Longer Remain Silent’
Sarah Trumble of the Third Way think tank, said Obama’s manner and remarks made obvious that “the president is tired of offering condolences but nothing else. But the truth is, there’s just not a lot he can do. Congress has to act. And the only way Congress acts this session is if the American people rise up and make them.”
Press Secretary Josh Earnest called on lawmakers to act, telling reporters during a sometimes-testy briefing that “there are things that only Congress can do.” Specifically, he urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would close the so-called “gun show loophole” and prohibit individuals on the no-fly list from legally purchasing firearms. He pointed to a possible ban on assault weapons.
Obama knows he needs the help of Republican lawmakers, most of whom are gun rights advocates. And before Obama and later Earnest spoke, top Republicans had made clear they have no appetite for enacting any gun control legislation before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
On the no-fly list proposal, Speaker Paul D. Ryan Thursday called it a violation of people’s rights. “Anyone can arbitrarily be placed on the no fly list,” he said, adding: “We need to respect due process.” And his No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters House Republicans are working with Democrats on a mental health overhaul bill they claim would also help stem the trend of mass shootings.
Obama, however, might have one arrow left in an otherwise empty gun-control quiver.
“I wouldn’t put it past him to do something via executive action before he leaves,” Trumble said.
To that end, Earnest mentioned Obama has asked his advisers to “scrub the law” to determine whether he possesses the authority to take actions on his own to make it harder for would-be criminals to purchase certain firearms.
But Earnest also called on Congress to act. He sparred with reporters who questioned whether stricter gun-purchasing laws would really prevent more mass shootings.
There was little else White House officials could do, especially with the president so powerless to bring about legislative changes.
The last option could be a politically perilous one if the president is thinking about his legacy: executive action. Nearly two dozen constitutional lawyers say there is “a powerful legal argument for executive action at a time when people are dying and gun violence goes unchecked.”
“The president has implored Congress to act, but it is clear the leadership will instead pander to the fringe gun lobby,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. “He can take the steps, which are fully within his constitutional power, to fight this epidemic.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.