Call me sentimental. I don’t care. Call me emotional – too bad you don’t feel anything. Call me naïve – so? As I watched U.S. President Barack Obama make that impassioned plea for gun control this week, I was transported back to his inauguration on January 20, 2009. Friends and family from around the world had watched and wept as the legendary Aretha Franklin sang “America” My Country Tis of Thee, as a black man was entering the White House. Now, as he prepares to leave, he has taken on one of his country’s most powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA). With apologies to fellow Americans and the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, Obama has taken a small step for an American President, but it could become a huge leap for the world’s most powerful democracy. A call like this can only come impromptu from the heart, not a written speech.
Watch the Aretha Franklin song.
If there was a need to show that political exits are sometimes more important that entries, this was one. It will be talked about long after he bids goodbye to his presidency next year and he knows it. “It won’t happen overnight… it won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency… a lot of things don’t happen overnight,” he said. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was quick to respond. “Thank you POTUS, for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress – not rip it away,” she tweeted.
It is more normal than otherwise to ask – why on earth do people need guns for themselves and worse, for their children. How many people do you know who have grown up with guns lying around in the kitchen, on the sofa or in a broom closet? Switzerland, which has a soldier in every house with live ammunition and is one of the world’s top markets for guns does not see such random shootings. Owning a gun doesn’t make you more secure – it can make you more dangerous.
POTUS has not made such a passionate plea in a while. With tears in his eyes, he launched a goodbye push to rein in sales of firearms in the U.S., using his presidential power to counter the absence of tougher gun restrictions that the Congress has refused to pass. This is a conversation whose time has to be made to come in a country where some 32, 000 people are killed annually by random shootings. In 2015, many of those dead were young people, some were children, one was a female journalist killed point blank during a live television interview and news comes that a restaurant in Texas is offering heavy discounts to people visibly carrying guns. “First-graders,” Obama said fighting back tears as he recalled the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.” Gun shops sell pink guns for little girls and blue for little boys – everything is legal. And everything is so wrong.
Watch Barack Obama's emotional speech.
Obama’s 10-point initiative to keep guns away from those who shouldn’t possess them is widely viewed as a concession and he will leave office without securing new gun control laws despite his pleas. Gun control advocates have been quick to point out that only the Congress can enact sweeping changes. The NRA has junked the call saying it is “ripe for abuse,” without specifying what that abuse could be. But here’s the rub – what can be more abusive than shooting children? POTUS addressed that when he said his call must not be seen as a bi-partisan issue as there are good people on both sides of the gun-divide.
The baseline of Obama’s plan seeks to tighten a loophole in U.S. laws that exempt gun sales from background checks if the seller is not a federal registered dealer. With the new plan, the administration wants a watch on even those who sell just a few weapons at gun shows or online. Millions of guns are sold annually outside of gun shops and the Obama administration has acknowledged the difficulty in quantifying this activity as well as difficulties in identifying unregistered gun sellers. In addition, all of this initiative could be reversed by the next administration, but somewhere Obama’s speech will matter. Or let us put it this way – other people around the world will weigh in with their opinions like ace tennis player Andy Murray.
You may remember this. Andy Murray let his guard down last year when he spoke of the Dunblane (Scotland) shooting in 1987 when the killer Thomas Hamilton stormed into his school and killed 17 people, mostly children, before killing himself. Murray spoke publicly about the Dunblane massacre for the first time in a BBC documentary aired on the eve of the 2015 Wimbledon championships and wept, like Obama, as he struggled to speak. Following that massacre, Scotland’s lawmakers wrote in gun-control measures almost overnight following that bloodbath. Obama’s plea has already been called non-sexy, lacking the oomph factor. The Justice Department said online that the guidance “has no regulatory effect as it is not intended to create or confer any rights, privileges, or benefits in any matter, case or proceeding.” None of the steps would have prevented the recent spate of mass shootings but POTUS rejected his critics saying, “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some.”
Some things are spoken from the heart. Death is one such where neither data nor political obduracy must matter. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is finalizing a rule requiring background checks for buyers of dangerous weapons from trusts, corporations or other legal entities.
Way to go, Mr. President. High time our children know that Magnum is not an ice cream.