President Barack Obama slammed members of Congress for being “terrified” of offending the National Rifle Association on Tuesday, just hours after two young people died in a shooting at a high school in suburban Portland, Oregon.
Speaking in stark terms about the need to take action against gun violence and stem the endemic public shootings, he lamented what he sees as a growing public complacency, especially on Capitol Hill, about mass killings being the price to pay for the Second Amendment.
“We're the only developed country on earth where this happens,” the president said. “And it happens now once a week. And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this.”
Since the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, where one young man carrying an assault rifle murdered 20 children and six educators at an elementary school, there have reportedly been 74 school shootings, including Tuesday’s.
“I have been in Washington for a while now, and most things don't surprise me,” the president said. “The fact that 20 six-year-olds were gunned down in the most violent fashion possible and this town couldn't do anything about it was stunning to me.”
In the wake of Newtown, efforts to impose stricter background checks at the federal level fizzled in Congress. While some states, such as New York and Maryland, passed laws trying to curb access to military-style assault weapons, others, like Georgia, decided to ease restrictions on weapons.
Gun lobbyists argue that preventing citizens from carrying guns means that only criminals will have access to them, making law-abiding Americans less safe. Moreover, the gun lobbyists say that mental health issues stand at the root of the problem, not the ability of people to buy high-powered rifles or easily concealed handguns.
Obama refuted these claims.
“The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It's not the only country that has psychosis,” he said.
“And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyplace else. Well, what's the difference? The difference is, is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses. And that's sort of par for the course.”
In his off-the-cuff statements, the president noted that Australia successfully curbed mass shootings after suffering a tragedy similar in scale to Newtown.
In 1996, a 28-year-old gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle killed 35 people in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur. Afterward, Australian public opinion shifted dramatically in favor of gun control and the government imposed stringent rules on the types of weapons that Australians could own. Some people even turned in the firearms they already owned, the National Journal reported.
“Australia just said, ‘Well, that's it. We're not doing, we're not seeing that again,’ and basically imposed very severe, tough gun laws, and they haven't had a mass shooting since. I mean, our levels of gun violence are off the charts,” the president said.
“There's no advanced, developed country on earth that would put up with this.”
Saying he respects the right of Americans to own guns, the president said a change in public opinion was the only way to pass effective gun regulation.
“So the country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm. And we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me,” he said in closing.
“I am prepared to work with anybody, including responsible sportsmen and gun owners, to craft some solutions. But right now, it's not even possible to get even the mildest restrictions through Congress. And we should be ashamed of that.”
If it happens, the soul searching process promises to be complex and fraught with misunderstanding.
Last September, in the days after a mass shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard that killed 13, including the gunman, gun owners in Maryland said they didn’t think any law would help end the scourge of mass shootings.
"No legislation will ever stop what happened in Newtown or any other place. It's sad, it's unfortunate, and I feel very bad for the kids and families that were injured by it. But you're not going to be able to change the fact that gun bans don't stop that from happening," said James Alexander, 28.
Indeed, the debate in the public sphere over gun regulation continues to become more polarized.
A better-funded and more vocal anti-gun lobby has upped efforts since Newtown to get its message out.
“We send our kids to school each day to learn math and science, not duck and cover — and I know events like today’s put fear into the hearts of all parents across the country, who wonder if the next shooting will be at their children’s school,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement about the Oregon shooting. The group was formed in the aftermath of the Newtown incident.
Likewise, the pro-gun lobby has become more entrenched.
Last week, the NRA was forced to walk back remarks made by one of its officials criticizing Texas gun and rifle owners who unapologetically carry their weapons in public and bring weapons to rallies, unconcealed and in plain view.
“The truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as ‘weird’ or somehow not normal, and that was a mistake,” Chris Cox, chief NRA lobbyist, said, according to The Associated Press. “It shouldn’t have happened.”