But finally, having at long last given up hope that Congress would act, the president announced that he would do what he could, with a few very modest executive actions that would:
Institute a uniform background check requirement wherever guns are sold — in stores, at gun shows, and online. Currently no background check is required to buy at gun shows or online.
Provide funding for 200 new ATF agents and investigators to help enforce existing gun laws.
Invest $500 million to increase access to mental health care and reporting to the background check system. Both the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services are in the process of making rules to provide the background check system with information about individuals prohibited from possessing firearms.
Direct the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety.
It’s all fairly unobjectionable stuff that Congress just won’t do; stuff that a president who’s eulogized too many mass shooting victims got tired of waiting for Congress to do.
So, when President Obama finally stood to address gun violence, his mind probably went back to when he eulogized Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and the other eight victims of the Charleston, S.C. shooting. Perhaps he thought about the police officer and the young mother killed in the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting. Maybe he remembered visiting with the families of the victims in Roseburg, Ore. He likely remembered speaking at the memorial for the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting. He probably thought about former Arizona representative Gabbie Giffords, and the other victims of the Tucson, Ariz. shooting.
But inevitably, his mind went back to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first graders, all just 6 or 7 years old, went to school one December morning two years ago, and never came home again. Tears fell from President Obama’s eyes as he remembered those children, and the gun violence that stole their lives — and so many others — away.
Conservatives, lacking any real response or alternative to the president’s plan, mocked his tears.
Brietbart.com film critic John Nolte tweeted that President Obama was really “giving America the finger” when he wiped away “fake-fascist tears.”
Of course, right-wingers wouldn’t understand why President Obama would weep over 20 dead first-graders. Nor would they understand why those tears would come as easily as they did when he eulogized those young victims, or why that grief was just as fresh as it was that December morning when America and the world began to absorb the violence that wiped out 26 lives in just five minutes — from the moment the killer entered the school to the moment he fired the last shot and ended his own life.
It was unspeakable. It was incomprehensible. The thought of what happened at Sandy Hook was as incongruous with the safety and innocence of an elementary school as the shattered glass, bullet holes, shell casings and bloodstains that spoke of the unimaginable horror of the last moments of children who had probably just kissed their parents goodbye for the last time, only moments before.
At the time, it was enough to make anyone weep. Many of us did, again and again; openly, at memorials and vigils for the victims; quietly, after having explain to our children what happen, or why their school had safety drills to teach students how to hide or evacuate the school in the event of an active shooter.
Yet, for a moment, many of us also hoped. Surely the loss of so many innocent lives, would finally be the catalyst that would cause Americans to say, “Enough.” Surely, we couldn’t look at the faces of those children, without demanding that our leaders do something to prevent one more disturbed person from amassing the firepower to destroy so many lives, so quickly.
We hoped that Americans would be unable to shrug off the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, and go on with business as usual. We hoped that, as Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook, said when he introduced the president, “We are better than this.”
But we were not better than that. Congress did nothing. Too few of us demanded change. The status quo held, and identical horrors visited Charleston, Roseburg, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino. Today, it’s not just a question of when the next massacre will happen, but where and when.
Perhaps the president wept not just for the lives lost at Sandy Hook, the lives lost to gun violence since then, or the lives that will be lost to gun violence. Perhaps the president wept because we are still not better than a nation that looks on complacently as tragedy after preventable tragedy unfolds.