In some ways, the speech and the actions went beyond what many expected. The call to reinstate the assault weapons ban--a decision that lies in Congress--shows a second-term president ready to speak his mind on an issue that has come to the fore after massacres across the country.
Obama attempted to ground the new proposals in surveys showing broad public support for more gun control, portraying the powerful gun lobbies as not representative of majority views. He stressed the human costs of gun violence by describing details of the victims lives, especially the children of Sandy Hook, and appealing to a universal concern for children's safety. Four young people who wrote him about there concerns accompanied the president on stage.
In the speech, President Obama detailed three measures required of Congress and mentioned a few of his executive measures.
The three specific requests of Congress are:
- Legislation to require a universal background check on all gun buyers. Obama noted that existing background checks have kept some 1.5 million guns from ending up in the hands of potentially irresponsible buyers. He noted that one survey found that 70% of NRA members favor universal background checks.
- Restore the ban on military-style assault weapons and instate a 10-round limit for ammunition magazines. Obama stated that the shooter in the July 20, 2012 massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater used an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine that enabled him to shoot 70 people, killing 12, in minutes. "Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater," he said.
- "Help, rather than hinder law enforcement", by getting tough on people who buy guns to sell to criminals. He did not refer to specific legislative changes here, but instead to the need to confirm the director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF), the agency charged with overseeing arms sales and preventing smuggling. Obama has nominated acting director Todd Jones.
2. "Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system."
3. "Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system."
4. "Direct the attorney general to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks."
5. "Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun."
6. "Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers."
7. "Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign."
8. "Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission)."
9. "Issue a presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations."
10. "Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement."
11. "Nominate an ATF director."
12. "Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations."
13. "Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime."
14. "Issue a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence."
15. "Direct the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies."
16. "Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes."
17. "Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities."
18. "Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers."
19. "Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education."
20. "Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover."
21. "Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges."
22. "Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations."
23. "Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health."
With the plan on the table, the battle begins. Obama called on the U.S. public to support the measures and begin pressure on Congressional representatives, emphasizing districts heavily influenced by gun lobbyists and organizations.
Will the new plan help reduce Mexico´s violence?
Mexico will be paying very close attention to this debate. From former president Calderon, who called for reinstatement of the assault weapon ban and an end to gun smuggling on the floor of the US Congress in May of 2011, to Mexico's Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity during a caravan across the United States have called for stricter control on arms sales and trafficking because loose laws not only contribute to the mass shootings in the United States but also fuel drug war violence in Mexico as smugglers take high-power weapons over the border.
"the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We also propose increasing the regulatory capacity of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in the border regions where the arms smuggling is concentrated, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas."
It's understandable that with a major domestic battle looming, bringing Mexico into the mix might not be strategic. With the racism and xenophobia that characterize some segments of the press and population, mentioning Mexico in almost any context can cause polemics. Just take a look at the number of irate statements from Fox News and other right-wing outlets whenever Calderon called for reforming US gun laws to control smuggling.
But Obama could have, and should have, included some critical points that would reduce illegal cross-border smuggling in the context of US reforms.
A close look at the reforms shows that the first six points relate to background checks. Congress has to legislate to require universal background checks, so these measures attempt to fill gaps within the existing structure, with greater information sharing and rigorous enforcement and definition.
Actions 7-8, 15, 18 relate to public education and gun safety measures, and the development of the emergency response model.
Actions 9-11 and 14 announce additional efforts by federal law enforcement agencies to generate and share information on gun violence from the causes (CDC) to the source of guns. These include hiring of the ATF director.
Actions 12-13 regard stronger, more effective law enforcement. This includes nominating the ATF director, which he did with Jones. Some press articles have interpreted #12 as placing cops in schools--a terrible idea--but that has not so far been stated explicitly in the list or the public event. Action 18 refers to hiring "school resource officers"--whatever that means.
The rest of the actions include measures to prevent and spot threats within mental health services.
What does this mean for Mexico?
* Increased background checks will reduce smuggling. There is no question that greater vigilance over who is allowed to purchase guns, as Obama, stated both from licensed dealers and gun-show sellers, will make it more difficult for straw purchasers to buy for smugglers. These measures must be fully and actively supported.
* The most impact by far would be the ban on sale and possession of assault weapons. Cutting off the free circulation of these weapons in the United States would help dry up U.S. supply for smugglers. This will be vigorously opposed by gun proponents.
None of the demands put forward by a group of US and Mexican non-governmental organizations made it into the presidential actions. A petition signed by more than 50,000 people called to:
- Immediately detain and prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States, because many of them are sent as contraband to Mexico.
- Order dealers to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) the sale of multiple assault rifles to the same person over a period of five days.
- Increase the regulatory capacity of the ATF in those regions of the United States that supply the weapons contraband to Mexico, especially in border states.
"Ask (your representatives) to do this and if they say no, ask them why not..." and added pointedly, "What's more important? Getting an A grade from the gun lobby that helps fund their campaigns or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?"
The National Rifle Association's influence in Congress remains strong and extends into international policy as well.
Just before signing the actions, Obama noted that mass shootings enabled in part by loose gun controls, are not only a tragedy but a violation of basic human rights. The right to assemble peacefully (for those shot in the theaters), the right to freedom of worship (for the sikh in Wisconsin) and basic rights to life and happiness are violated by violence.
In Mexico, this rights framework that incorporates and adds to the human tragedy, can help in understanding how to climb out of the morass of gun violence here by lending a greater sense of urgency to the issue. The right to live without violence places responsibility for ending the killings squarely within the realm of the state.
Mexico prohibits most gun ownership, but as always enforcement is the problem. If fewer guns come over the border, the nation could have a small, but important, aid in reducing the bloodshed that has become a hallmark of daily life since the drug war began.
In the United States, we must support these measures to protect our communities. But remember that the dynamics of violence are far more causal than the tools. A killer will find a way to kill.
In Mexico, today's plan comes as welcome news. But the black market for arms is international and "legitimate" arms in the hands of authorities are just as deadly when turned against the population as arms in the hands of criminals. Until the U.S. government abandons its support for Mexico's disastrous drug war embodied in the Merida Initiative foreign aid package, it continues to feed the dynamics of violence in Mexican border cities and throughout the country.