Obama faced relentless opposition to gun reform, even after a shooting that left 20 children dead

President Barack Obama sheds a tear while delivering a statement on steps the administration is taking to reduce gun violence in the East Room of the White House in Washington January 5, 2016.

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President Barack Obama sheds a tear while delivering a statement on steps the administration is taking to reduce gun violence in the East Room of the White House in Washington January 5, 2016.
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Carlos Barria/Reuters

  • Former President Barack Obama, who spoke out on Monday after two mass shootings, repeatedly struggled to get Congress to pass gun legislation during his tenure.
  • Obama turned to executive actions in an effort to address gun violence, but they were limited in scope and have not had a lasting impact.
  • The gun lobby has so much influence in Washington that the US government hasn’t passed a major piece of gun legislation to thwart violence linked to firearms in 25 years.
  • In the wake of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Obama issued a call for new gun laws to prevent further tragedies.
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Former President Barack Obama during his tenure garnered a reputation for keeping his emotions in check, earning the nickname “no drama Obama.”

In one of the few moments of his presidency that marked a break from this trend, Obama began to cry as he expressed frustration and despair over a mass shooting that left 20 children dead in Newtown, Connecticut.

It was January 2016 – years after the devastating 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School – and Obama was announcing executive actions designed to help curb gun violence.

In the absence of congressional action, Obama leaned on his presidential authority to address a problem that visibly haunted him.

“Each time this comes up,” Obama said in his speech at the time, “we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. I reject that thinking. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

Read more: Trump condemned ‘white supremacy’ after the El Paso shooting, but his administration has made it harder to fight

In April 2013, as Sandy Hook parents looked on from the gallery, Senate Republicans ensured that a modest, bipartisan bill to expand background checks did not pass.

The bill, put forward by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, failed in part due to pressure from the National Rifle Association. It needed 60 votes to pass, but four Democrats in states with high rates of gun ownership joined Republicans in voting against it, and the final count was 54-46.

Obama’s executive actions aimed to expand background checks and address what is known as the “gun show loophole,” a catch-all phrase referring to the sale of firearms by unlicensed, private sellers at gun shows and other venues – including the internet. Federal licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks, but not all sellers are required to be licensed (laws varies from state to state).

Obama’s plan to address gun violence in 2016 ultimately amounted to little in the way of action, highlighting the limitations of the power of the executive versus the lasting impact of legislation that gets passed and signed into law.

As The New York Times put it in February 2016, roughly a month after the actions were announced: “The centerpiece of a plan for stemming gun violence that President Obama announced last month largely amounts to this: an updated web page and 10,000 pamphlets that federal agents will give out at gun shows … Few concrete actions have been put in motion by law enforcement agencies.”

Obama also issued 23 executive actions on gun violence in January 2013, soon after the Sandy Hook massacre, in an effort to get the ball rolling on reform.

But he was repeatedly unsuccessful in his calls for Congress to pass any form of gun legislation, regardless of startling rates of gun violence and continuous mass shootings. Time and again, Republicans in Congress blocked efforts to strengthen gun laws. The gun lobby has so much influence in Washington that the US government hasn’t passed a major piece of gun legislation to thwart violence linked to firearms in 25 years.

“I think the reason why many Republicans refuse to support any gun control law is fear of losing on Election Day,” Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA , told CBS News in June 2016. And that trend has continued in the years since. At present, the top-ten recipients of money from gun-rights organizations like the NRA are all Republicans in Congress, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas at the top of the list.

In the wake of two mass shootings that occurred in less than 24 hours this past week, President Donald Trump is under pressure to encourage Republicans in Congress to embrace gun reform on some level.

Read more: ‘We are not helpless here’: Former President Barack Obama made a rare public statement calling for action on gun violence after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton

Trump, who blamed mental illness for the shootings, is also facing renewed criticism for rolling back a somewhat divisive Obama-era regulation that made it harder for people with mental illness to buy guns. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been highly critical of Trump on myriad issues, objected to that regulation.

The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation earlier this year, but GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who also stymied much of Obama’s gun reform agenda – has refused to take it up. During the first half of 2019, the NRA spent $1.6 million lobbying against the legislation, which is designed to increase background checks – a policy that polling has repeatedly shown is supported by the vast majority of the US public.

Amid the calls for change, Obama on Monday issued a rare public statement in his post-presidency urging for the country to step up and make substantive changes to prevent further tragedies.

“No other developed nation tolerates the level of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we’re told that tougher gun laws won’t stop all murders … but the evidence shows that we can stop some killings,” Obama wrote.