Full Text: President Obama and Joe Biden’s Statements on Gun Violence Proposals

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, talks about proposals to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
National Journal
Jan. 16, 2013, 8:38 a.m.

The White House re­leased the fol­low­ing tran­script of the state­ments Pres­id­ent Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Biden made on the gun con­trol pro­pos­als an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

THE VICE PRES­ID­ENT:  Be­fore I be­gin today, let me say to the fam­il­ies of the in­no­cents who were murdered 33 days ago, our heart goes out to you.  And you show in­cred­ible cour­age — in­cred­ible cour­age — be­ing here.  And the Pres­id­ent and I are go­ing to do everything in our power to hon­or the memory of your chil­dren and your wives with the work we take up here today.

It’s been 33 days since the na­tion’s heart was broken by the hor­rif­ic, sense­less vi­ol­ence that took place at Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary School — 20 — 20 beau­ti­ful first-graders gunned down in a place that’s sup­posed to be their second sanc­tu­ary.  Six mem­bers of the staff killed try­ing to save those chil­dren.  It’s lit­er­ally been hard for the na­tion to com­pre­hend, hard for the na­tion to fathom.

 And I know for the fam­il­ies who are here that time is not meas­ured in days, but it’s meas­ured in minutes, in seconds, since you re­ceived that news.  An­oth­er minute without your daugh­ter. An­oth­er minute without your son.  An­oth­er minute without your wife.  An­oth­er minute without your mom.

I want to per­son­ally thank Chris and Lynn Mc­Don­ald, who lost their beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, Grace, and the oth­er par­ents who I had a chance to speak to, for their sug­ges­tions and for — again, just for the cour­age of all of you to be here today.  I ad­mire the grace and the re­solve that you all are show­ing.  And I must say I’ve been deeply af­fected by your faith, as well.  And the Pres­id­ent and I are go­ing to do everything to try to match the re­solve you’ve demon­strated.

No one can know for cer­tain if this sense­less act could have been pre­ven­ted, but we all know we have a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion — a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion — to do everything in our power to di­min­ish the pro­spect that something like this could hap­pen again.

As the Pres­id­ent knows, I’ve worked in this field a long time — in the United States Sen­ate, hav­ing chaired a com­mit­tee that had jur­is­dic­tion over these is­sues of guns and crime, and hav­ing draf­ted the first gun vi­ol­ence le­gis­la­tion — the last gun vi­ol­ence le­gis­la­tion, I should say.  And I have no il­lu­sions about what we’re up against or how hard the task is in front of us.  But I also have nev­er seen the na­tion’s con­science so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook.  The world has changed, and it’s de­mand­ing ac­tion.

 It’s in this con­text that the Pres­id­ent asked me to put to­geth­er, along with Cab­in­et mem­bers, a set of re­com­mend­a­tions about how we should pro­ceed to meet that mor­al ob­lig­a­tion we have.  And to­ward that end, the Cab­in­et mem­bers and I sat down with 229 groups — not just in­di­vidu­als, rep­res­ent­ing groups — 229 groups from law en­force­ment agen­cies to pub­lic health of­fi­cials, to gun of­fi­cials, to gun ad­vocacy groups, to sports­men and hunters and re­li­gious lead­ers.  And I’ve spoken with mem­bers of Con­gress on both sides of the aisle, had ex­tens­ive con­ver­sa­tions with may­ors and gov­ernors and county of­fi­cials.

And the re­com­mend­a­tions we provided to the Pres­id­ent on Monday call for ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions he could sign, le­gis­la­tion he could call for, and long-term re­search that should be un­der­taken. They’re based on the emer­ging con­sensus we heard from all the groups with whom we spoke, in­clud­ing some of you who are vic­tims of this god-aw­ful oc­cur­rence — ways to keep guns out of the wrong hands, as well as ways to take com­pre­hens­ive ac­tion to pre­vent vi­ol­ence in the first place.

We should do as much as we can, as quickly as we can.  And we can­not let the per­fect be the en­emy of the good.  So some of what you will hear from the Pres­id­ent will hap­pen im­me­di­ately; some will take some time.  But we have be­gun.  And we are start­ing here today and we’re go­ing to re­solve to con­tin­ue this fight.

Dur­ing the meet­ings that we held, we met with a young man who’s here today — I think Colin God­dard is here.  Where are you, Colin?  Colin was one of the sur­viv­ors of the Vir­gin­ia Tech mas­sacre.  He was in the classroom.  He calls him­self one of the “lucky sev­en.”  And he’ll tell you he was shot four times on that day and he has three bul­lets that are still in­side him.

And when I asked Colin about what he thought we should be do­ing, he said, “I’m not here be­cause of what happened to me. I’m here be­cause of what happened to me keeps hap­pen­ing to oth­er people and we have to do something about it.”

Colin, we will.  Colin, I prom­ise you, we will.  This is our in­ten­tion.  We must do what we can now.  And there’s no per­son who is more com­mit­ted to act­ing on this mor­al ob­lig­a­tion we have than the Pres­id­ent of the United States of Amer­ica.

Ladies and gen­tle­men, Pres­id­ent Barack Obama.  (Ap­plause.)

THE PRES­ID­ENT:  Thank you, every­body.  Please have a seat.  Good af­ter­noon, every­body.

Let me be­gin by thank­ing our Vice Pres­id­ent, Joe Biden, for your ded­ic­a­tion, Joe, to this is­sue, for bring­ing so many dif­fer­ent voices to the table.  Be­cause while re­du­cing gun vi­ol­ence is a com­plic­ated chal­lenge, pro­tect­ing our chil­dren from harm shouldn’t be a di­vis­ive one.

Over the month since the tragedy in New­town, we’ve heard from so many, and, ob­vi­ously, none have af­fected us more than the fam­il­ies of those gor­geous chil­dren and their teach­ers and guard­i­ans who were lost.  And so we’re grate­ful to all of you for tak­ing the time to be here, and re­cog­niz­ing that we hon­or their memor­ies in part by do­ing everything we can to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing again.

But we also heard from some un­ex­pec­ted people.  In par­tic­u­lar, I star­ted get­ting a lot of let­ters from kids.  Four of them are here today — Grant Fritz, Ju­lia Stokes, Hinna Zee­jah, and Teja Goode.  They’re pretty rep­res­ent­at­ive of some of the mes­sages that I got.  These are some pretty smart let­ters from some pretty smart young people.

Hinna, a third-grader — you can go ahead and wave, Hinna. That’s you — (laughter.)  Hinna wrote, “I feel ter­rible for the par­ents who lost their chil­dren”¦I love my coun­try and [I] want every­body to be happy and safe.”

And then, Grant — go ahead and wave, Grant.  (Laughter.)  Grant said, “I think there should be some changes.  We should learn from what happened at Sandy Hook”¦I feel really bad.”

And then, Ju­lia said — Ju­lia, where are you?  There you go — “I’m not scared for my safety, I’m scared for oth­ers.  I have four broth­ers and sis­ters and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of los­ing any of them.”

These are our kids.  This is what they’re think­ing about.  And so what we should be think­ing about is our re­spons­ib­il­ity to care for them, and shield them from harm, and give them the tools they need to grow up and do everything that they’re cap­able of do­ing — not just to pur­sue their own dreams, but to help build this coun­try.  This is our first task as a so­ci­ety, keep­ing our chil­dren safe.  This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should com­pel us to change.

And that’s why, last month, I asked Joe to lead an ef­fort, along with mem­bers of my Cab­in­et, to come up with some con­crete steps we can take right now to keep our chil­dren safe, to help pre­vent mass shoot­ings, to re­duce the broad­er epi­dem­ic of gun vi­ol­ence in this coun­try.

And we can’t put this off any longer.  Just last Thursday, as TV net­works were cov­er­ing one of Joe’s meet­ings on this top­ic, news broke of an­oth­er school shoot­ing, this one in Cali­for­nia.  In the month since 20 pre­cious chil­dren and six brave adults were vi­ol­ently taken from us at Sandy Hook Ele­ment­ary, more than 900 of our fel­low Amer­ic­ans have re­portedly died at the end of a gun — 900 in the past month.  And every day we wait, that num­ber will keep grow­ing.

So I’m put­ting for­ward a spe­cif­ic set of pro­pos­als based on the work of Joe’s task force.  And in the days ahead, I in­tend to use whatever weight this of­fice holds to make them a real­ity. Be­cause while there is no law or set of laws that can pre­vent every sense­less act of vi­ol­ence com­pletely, no piece of le­gis­la­tion that will pre­vent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to re­duce this vi­ol­ence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an ob­lig­a­tion to try.

And I’m go­ing to do my part.  As soon as I’m fin­ished speak­ing here, I will sit at that desk and I will sign a dir­ect­ive giv­ing law en­force­ment, schools, men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als and the pub­lic health com­munity some of the tools they need to help re­duce gun vi­ol­ence.

We will make it easi­er to keep guns out of the hands of crim­in­als by strength­en­ing the back­ground check sys­tem.  We will help schools hire more re­source of­ficers if they want them and de­vel­op emer­gency pre­pared­ness plans.  We will make sure men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als know their op­tions for re­port­ing threats of vi­ol­ence — even as we ac­know­ledge that someone with a men­tal ill­ness is far more likely to be a vic­tim of vi­ol­ent crime than the per­pet­rat­or.  

And while year after year, those who op­pose even mod­est gun safety meas­ures have threatened to de­fund sci­entif­ic or med­ic­al re­search in­to the causes of gun vi­ol­ence, I will dir­ect the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol to go ahead and study the best ways to re­duce it — and Con­gress should fund re­search in­to the ef­fects that vi­ol­ent video games have on young minds.  We don’t be­ne­fit from ig­nor­ance.  We don’t be­ne­fit from not know­ing the sci­ence of this epi­dem­ic of vi­ol­ence.

These are a few of the 23 ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions that I’m an­noun­cing today.  But as im­port­ant as these steps are, they are in no way a sub­sti­tute for ac­tion from mem­bers of Con­gress.  To make a real and last­ing dif­fer­ence, Con­gress, too, must act — and Con­gress must act soon.  And I’m call­ing on Con­gress to pass some very spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als right away.

First:  It’s time for Con­gress to re­quire a uni­ver­sal back­ground check for any­one try­ing to buy a gun.  (Ap­plause.)   The law already re­quires li­censed gun deal­ers to run back­ground checks, and over the last 14 years that’s kept 1.5 mil­lion of the wrong people from get­ting their hands on a gun.  But it’s hard to en­force that law when as many as 40 per­cent of all gun pur­chases are con­duc­ted without a back­ground check.  That’s not safe.  That’s not smart.  It’s not fair to re­spons­ible gun buy­ers or sellers.

If you want to buy a gun — wheth­er it’s from a li­censed deal­er or a private seller — you should at least have to show you are not a felon or some­body leg­ally pro­hib­ited from buy­ing one.  This is com­mon sense.  And an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans agree with us on the need for uni­ver­sal back­ground checks — in­clud­ing more than 70 per­cent of the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation’s mem­bers, ac­cord­ing to one sur­vey.  So there’s no reas­on we can’t do this.

Second:  Con­gress should re­store a ban on mil­it­ary-style as­sault weapons, and a 10-round lim­it for magazines.  (Ap­plause.) The type of as­sault rifle used in Au­rora, for ex­ample, when paired with high-ca­pa­city magazines, has one pur­pose — to pump out as many bul­lets as pos­sible, as quickly as pos­sible; to do as much dam­age, us­ing bul­lets of­ten de­signed to in­flict max­im­um dam­age.

And that’s what al­lowed the gun­man in Au­rora to shoot 70 people — 70 people — killing 12 in a mat­ter of minutes.  Weapons de­signed for the theat­er of war have no place in a movie theat­er.  A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans agree with us on this.

And, by the way, so did Ron­ald Re­agan, one of the staunchest de­fend­ers of the Second Amend­ment, who wrote to Con­gress in 1994, ur­ging them — this is Ron­ald Re­agan speak­ing — ur­ging them to “listen to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic and to the law en­force­ment com­munity and sup­port a ban on the fur­ther man­u­fac­ture of [mil­it­ary-style as­sault] weapons.”  (Ap­plause.)

And fi­nally, Con­gress needs to help, rather than hinder, law en­force­ment as it does its job.  We should get tough­er on people who buy guns with the ex­press pur­pose of turn­ing around and selling them to crim­in­als.  And we should severely pun­ish any­body who helps them do this.  Since Con­gress hasn’t con­firmed a dir­ect­or of the Bur­eau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco and Fire­arms in six years, they should con­firm Todd Jones, who will be — who has been Act­ing, and I will be nom­in­at­ing for the post.  (Ap­plause.)

And at a time when budget cuts are for­cing many com­munit­ies to re­duce their po­lice force, we should put more cops back on the job and back on our streets.

Let me be ab­so­lutely clear.  Like most Amer­ic­ans, I be­lieve the Second Amend­ment guar­an­tees an in­di­vidu­al right to bear arms. I re­spect our strong tra­di­tion of gun own­er­ship and the rights of hunters and sports­men.  There are mil­lions of re­spons­ible, law-abid­ing gun own­ers in Amer­ica who cher­ish their right to bear arms for hunt­ing, or sport, or pro­tec­tion, or col­lec­tion.

I also be­lieve most gun own­ers agree that we can re­spect the Second Amend­ment while keep­ing an ir­re­spons­ible, law-break­ing few from in­flict­ing harm on a massive scale.  I be­lieve most of them agree that if Amer­ica worked harder to keep guns out of the hands of dan­ger­ous people, there would be few­er at­ro­cit­ies like the one that oc­curred in New­town.  That’s what these re­forms are de­signed to do.  They’re com­mon-sense meas­ures.  They have the sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of the Amer­ic­an people.

And yet, that doesn’t mean any of this is go­ing to be easy to en­act or im­ple­ment.  If it were, we’d already have uni­ver­sal back­ground checks.  The ban on as­sault weapons and high-ca­pa­city magazines nev­er would have been al­lowed to ex­pire.  More of our fel­low Amer­ic­ans might still be alive, cel­eb­rat­ing birth­days and an­niversar­ies and gradu­ations.

This will be dif­fi­cult.  There will be pun­dits and politi­cians and spe­cial in­terest lob­by­ists pub­licly warn­ing of a tyr­an­nic­al, all-out as­sault on liberty — not be­cause that’s true, but be­cause they want to gin up fear or high­er rat­ings or rev­en­ue for them­selves.  And be­hind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any com­mon-sense re­form and make sure noth­ing changes what­so­ever.

The only way we will be able to change is if their audi­ence, their con­stitu­ents, their mem­ber­ship says this time must be dif­fer­ent — that this time, we must do something to pro­tect our com­munit­ies and our kids.

I will put everything I’ve got in­to this, and so will Joe.  But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the Amer­ic­an people de­mand it.  And by the way, that doesn’t just mean from cer­tain parts of the coun­try.  We’re go­ing to need voices in those areas, in those con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts, where the tra­di­tion of gun own­er­ship is strong to speak up and to say this is im­port­ant.  It can’t just be the usu­al sus­pects.  We have to ex­am­ine ourselves and our hearts, and ask ourselves what is im­port­ant.

This will not hap­pen un­less the Amer­ic­an people de­mand it.  If par­ents and teach­ers, po­lice of­ficers and pas­tors, if hunters and sports­men, if re­spons­ible gun own­ers, if Amer­ic­ans of every back­ground stand up and say, enough; we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our chil­dren to al­low this to con­tin­ue — then change will come.  That’s what it’s go­ing to take.

In the let­ter that Ju­lia wrote me, she said, “I know that laws have to be passed by Con­gress, but I beg you to try very hard.”  (Laughter.)  Ju­lia, I will try very hard.  But she’s right.  The most im­port­ant changes we can make de­pend on con­gres­sion­al ac­tion.  They need to bring these pro­pos­als up for a vote, and the Amer­ic­an people need to make sure that they do.

Get them on re­cord.  Ask your mem­ber of Con­gress if they sup­port uni­ver­sal back­ground checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Ask them if they sup­port re­new­ing a ban on mil­it­ary-style as­sault weapons and high-ca­pa­city magazines.  And if they say no, ask them why not.  Ask them what’s more im­port­ant — do­ing whatever it takes to get a A grade from the gun lobby that funds their cam­paigns, or giv­ing par­ents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?  (Ap­plause.)

This is the land of the free, and it al­ways will be.  As Amer­ic­ans, we are en­dowed by our Cre­at­or with cer­tain in­ali­en­able rights that no man or gov­ern­ment can take away from us.  But we’ve also long re­cog­nized, as our Founders re­cog­nized, that with rights come re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.  Along with our free­dom to live our lives as we will comes an ob­lig­a­tion to al­low oth­ers to do the same.  We don’t live in isol­a­tion.  We live in a so­ci­ety, a gov­ern­ment of, and by, and for the people.  We are re­spons­ible for each oth­er.

The right to wor­ship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin.  The right to as­semble peace­ably, that right was denied shop­pers in Clack­a­mas, Ore­gon, and movie­go­ers in Au­rora, Col­or­ado.  That most fun­da­ment­al set of rights to life and liberty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness — fun­da­ment­al rights that were denied to col­lege stu­dents at Vir­gin­ia Tech, and high school stu­dents at Columbine, and ele­ment­ary school stu­dents in New­town, and kids on street corners in Chica­go on too fre­quent a basis to tol­er­ate, and all the fam­il­ies who’ve nev­er ima­gined that they’d lose a loved one to a bul­let — those rights are at stake.  We’re re­spons­ible.

When I vis­ited New­town last month, I spent some private time with many of the fam­il­ies who lost their chil­dren that day.  And one was the fam­ily of Grace Mc­Don­ald.  Grace’s par­ents are here. Grace was sev­en years old when she was struck down — just a gor­geous, caring, joy­ful little girl.  I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach.  She dreamed of be­com­ing a paint­er.

And so just be­fore I left, Chris, her fath­er, gave me one of her paint­ings, and I hung it in my private study just off the Oval Of­fice.  And every time I look at that paint­ing, I think about Grace.  And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how, when it comes to pro­tect­ing the most vul­ner­able among us, we must act now — for Grace.  For the 25 oth­er in­no­cent chil­dren and de­voted edu­cat­ors who had so much left to give.  For the men and wo­men in big cit­ies and small towns who fall vic­tim to sense­less vi­ol­ence each and every day.  For all the Amer­ic­ans who are count­ing on us to keep them safe from harm.  Let’s do the right thing.  Let’s do the right thing for them, and for this coun­try that we love so much.  (Ap­plause.)

Thank you.  Let’s sign these or­ders.  (Ap­plause.)

(The ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders are signed.)  (Ap­plause.)

All right, there we go.  (Ap­plause.)

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