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President Barack Obama announces executive actions on guns on Tuesday in the East Room of the White House.


The Decade-Long Journey to an Emotional Day of Action for Obama and Gun Reform Advocates

The president's executive actions punctuate Democrats’ emboldened approach to an issue the party is now eager to run on — rather than from.

In a press conference immediately following the fatal shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, White House spokesman Jay Carney shrunk from linking the massacre to a push for more restrictive gun laws. There will be “a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day,” Carney said. It wasn’t quite the “thoughts and prayers” that have drawn Republicans criticism from reform advocates after recent headline-grabbing gun violence, but it was close.  

Three years later, such reticence is long gone. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama, whose frustration with the continued carnage showed in a bout of tears, made good on his vow last fall to “politicize” shootings, and did so in vivid terms. At the end of a speech introducing his new executive actions to curb gun violence, Obama cited the heroism of Zaevion Dobson, a 15-year-old high school football player from Tennessee. Dobson died shielding three girls from gunfire shortly before Christmas, and Obama told Dobson’s story to justify his own moves — and to shame lawmakers into taking action of their own.  

“I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage, or sacrifice, or love,” Obama said. “But if we love our kids and care about their prospects, and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote.”

The moves Obama announced yesterday amount to the most important federal action on firearms in 20 years, and advocates for tougher gun rules applauded them, while lamenting that such modest executive actions qualify as so significant. “It’s not nearly enough, but it helps and it’s important,” said Illinois Representative Mike Quigley, whose district includes parts of Chicago, a city that ended 2015 with 468 homicides, most of them shootings.

In the long view, however, Obama’s emotional speech may prove more momentous for the larger transition it punctuated. The address capped a 10-year evolution within Democratic party leadership, which has shifted from staunchly avoiding conflict with gun rights advocates, to reluctantly (and intermittently) taking on gun-friendly forces, to lining up behind a cause it now deems both morally right and politically useful.

Believing their 1994 election drubbing reflected backlash against gun control, Democrats regained control of Congress in the 2006 cycle with a platform that pointedly excluded proposals to regulate guns. A wave of Democrats elected in rural states with high gun ownership rates were happy to see their party leaders sidestep the issue as they came into power. Democrats continued to duck the issue even after Obama was elected to the White House and the party held majorities in both chambers of Congress. 

Urban Democrats who might have been persuasive voices for doing more — including Obama himself, who on the presidential campaign trail in 2008 had said that he supported gun laws like extending the assault weapons ban — fell in line behind the strategy. The calculus was that “not doing guns” was the price of a big-tent majority. “We had suffered politically,” former congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, told The Trace. “People like Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi remember those days not fondly. They were more than a little averse to taking on the issue.”

In 2009 and 2010, the Democratically controlled Congress actually rolled back federal firearm restrictions, allowing guns in national parks and on Amtrak trains. Democrats from rural states joined Republicans on some of the votes. Quigley, who entered the House that session after winning a special election, was among the corner of the party still hopeful that Democrats might take action on gun violence. Instead, the window of opportunity abruptly closed. Republicans retook the chamber the following session. 

But the wipeout Democrats suffered in the 2010 midterms included the defeats of many members from more rural states. And following the 2012 Newtown massacre, Jay Carney’s initial hesitance was quickly supplanted by an urge within the party — stoked by reform advocates and public outcry — to do something. With a few exceptions, Democrats united behind the Obama administration’s early 2013 effort, overseen by Vice President Joe Biden, to push Congress to pass, at minimum, stricter background check laws. The bill won a majority of Senate votes but fell to a filibuster. Reformers had to settle for two batches of mostly minor executive actions advanced by the White House in January and August of that year.

As the 2014 midterm elections approached, the Obama administration and Democratic leaders let the issue slide down their agendas again. Gun violence prevention groups noted that their White House meetings were now with a revolving array of junior staffers, instead of senior brass.

Meanwhile, the party’s voting coalition was only becoming more urban, racially diverse, and educated — and bullish about gun restrictions. On the question of closing background check loopholes, poll numbers showed that strong majorities of Americans take Democrats’ side. The party’s presidential frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, took up the reform mantle after the Charleston church shooting in June and has since railed against gun violence with increasing avidity (it hasn’t hurt that the issue gives her an advantage over main rival Bernie Sanders, who backed legal immunity for firearms businesses as a senator from gun-loving Vermont). Announcing her own gun reform proposals following the Umpqua Community College shooting in October, Clinton vowed that she would as president use executive action to increase gun regulations if necessary.

Shortly thereafter, the Obama team went into the full court press that culminated with Tuesday’s unveiling of his package of executive actions. One official involved in the effort said reform advocates would have preferred that the president act sooner, a move that would have given federal agencies time to use their formal rule-making process to impose regulations, rather than relying on the ad hoc, less forceful, but expedient actions he announced. “He could have and should have done this years ago,” the official said — though the official added that Obama’s timing made sense politically. By acting after last month’s government spending deal cleared Congress, Obama leaves Republicans with few bills to use as legislative vehicles for riders that would block his actions.

“He had to be cautious about the fact that Congress is going to push back on this,” said Moran. “Had he done it earlier in his administration, it would have made it more difficult to get other measures through.”

During Obama’s speech, gun violence prevention advocates — rarely spotted in the White House before 2013 — packed the gilded East Room. Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was part of the crowd, and believes its presence marks a sea change. Influential Democratic strategists who a decade ago saw gun regulation as an assured political loser and avoided anti-gun violence groups, he said, have seen the light, telling party members that “it’s not just the right thing to do as policy, but it’s the right thing to do politically.” Now, Gerney said, there is “not just reluctant support, but enthusiastic support” for pressing the issue.

Near the end of his remarks, Obama noted that sweeping change on federal gun laws “won’t happen during my presidency.” Advocates nonetheless left the president’s often-somber speech upbeat, choosing to view his executive actions not as the final effort of a lame duck administration, but a rallying point in a long fight. 

[Photo: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA]