President Barack Obama cited Missouri’s lax gun laws Tuesday in announcing executive actions intended to reduce gun violence, including a more sweeping definition of gun dealers who will have to conduct background checks of buyers.
Anyone “in the business” of selling firearms will have to get a license and do background checks designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, Obama said. Now, only federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or the gun show,” Obama said of his executive action. “It’s not where you do it but what you do.”
Tears flowed down the president’s face as he spoke of massacres like the one in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
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“First-graders,” he said, his eyes tearing up. He wiped his eye and regained his composure. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”
In his address, Obama pointed specifically to the repeal of a Missouri law in 2007 governing gun purchases. The old law required residents to obtain a sheriff’s permit before purchasing a concealable gun. Since its repeal, background checks no longer have been required for gun sales, except for those by federally licensed dealers.
“…Since Missouri repealed a law requiring comprehensive background checks and purchase permits, gun deaths have increased to an almost 50 percent higher (rate) than the national average,” Obama said. “One study found, unsurprisingly, that criminals in Missouri now have easier access to guns.”
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté was not available Tuesday, but he recently referred to the problems Missouri law has created for law enforcement, particularly in urban areas.
“So I welcome any change that would help us keep guns away from those who would use them to commit violent crime,” he said.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James said he was aware of the spike in homicides after Missouri relaxed its gun laws, and he agreed with Obama’s comments.
“The one thing we haven’t done anything about is the proliferation of guns on the streets,” he said. “There are no guns laws in this state.”
The Violence Policy Center said Missouri ranked 12th among the states in firearm death rates in 2014.
Obama, speaking in the East Room of the White House, accused the gun lobby of taking Congress hostage, but said “they cannot hold America hostage.” He insisted it was possible to uphold the Second Amendment while doing something to tackle the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. that he said had become “the new normal.”
Gun control activists and the families of gun victims interrupted his address several times with applause.
In addition to a more sweeping definition of gun dealers, Obama announced other steps. They included making the background check system more efficient, better enforcement of gun laws already on the books, more efforts for treatment of mental illness and an emphasis on gun safety technology.
Locally, licensed gun dealer Michael Brown in Lee’s Summit said his first impression was that the president’s initiative would not affect Frontier Justice, the gun shop he owns with his wife, Bren. They always do background checks, he said, whether the sales are in-store or online.
“And having everyone in the business do that — I have no problem with that,” he said.
Brown also said any efforts to improve the background check process would be appreciated.
“One of the biggest issues for us as a business is the amount of paperwork we have to do,” he said. “Anything to make things more streamlined or electronic would be good.”
John Hartman, who owns the Snapshot Gun Shop in North Kansas City, said he didn’t expect the initiatives to affect his business. But he had questions about the effects of a broader background check requirement.
“The ATF has always insisted on background checks for anyone ‘in the business’ of selling firearms but has refused to define what ‘in the business’ means,” Hartman said. “You have people who just want to transfer a gun to a child or grandchild. And you have people who buy cheap from a legitimate dealer and then set up a table at a gun show and sell to strangers.”
Gun shows are scheduled this weekend at the KCI Expo Center in Kansas City and the following weekend at the Independence Events Center. Promoters for the events did not return calls.
Hartman wondered whether the changes Obama announced would be substantive or were more for politics’ sake. He noted that the guns used in some recent mass shootings were bought legally.
Reaction to Obama’s executive orders fell along predictable and partisan lines.
“The American people do not need more emotional, condescending lectures that are completely devoid of facts,” Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association, said in a statement. “The men and women of the National Rifle Association take a back seat to no one when it comes to keeping our communities safe. But the fact is that President Obama’s proposals would not have prevented any of the horrific events he mentioned.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Obama’s actions do not trump the Second Amendment.
“His executive order will no doubt be challenged in the courts,” Ryan said in a statement. “Ultimately, everything the president has done can be overturned by a Republican president, which is another reason we must win in November.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Washington Post he is worried that GOP lawmakers could block funding for the FBI or the ATF to carry out expanded background checks.
But Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate who opposes Obama’s action, said that would be difficult with the budget bill agreed to last month, which will keep the government running through September.
Jeb Bush echoed comments from Republican presidential candidates saying Obama “should focus on keeping guns out of the hands of the terrorists who want to kill innocent Americans.”
At a news conference Tuesday in Kansas City, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said he’s concerned about Obama’s use of executive orders to circumvent Congress. He also said the president misconstrues the Constitution.
“The Second Amendment matters,” the Missouri Republican said. “The president can say whatever he wants to about the Second Amendment and gun control, but he is not a supporter of the Second Amendment.”
But Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, called the announcement “commonsense steps.”
“These executive actions will help keep guns out of the wrong hands through background checks — something that 90 percent of Americans, including the majority of gun owners, support,” Woodhouse said in a statement.
Federal data show gun background checks hit 23.1 million in 2015, the highest since the system began in 1998.
Obama said Tuesday that background checks will not make it harder for law-abiding Americans to purchase guns.
Obama also called for advances in gun safety technology.
“In 2013 alone, more than 500 people lost their lives to gun accidents, and that includes 30 children younger than 5 years old,” he said. “In the greatest, most technologically advanced nation on Earth, there is no reason for this. We need to develop new technologies that make guns safer. If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?”
In his address, Obama made a reference to the April 13, 2014, shooting spree that killed three people near the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.
“Second Amendment rights are important, but there are other rights that we care about as well,” Obama said. “And we have to be able to balance them, because our right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City, and that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.”
An anti-Semite was convicted in the Overland Park shootings, but the victims were Christian and they weren’t there to worship.
William LaManno, whose wife, Terri, was killed while going to visit her mother at the Village Shalom care center, said he agrees more should be done to ensure guns are kept out of the hands of criminals.
“My wife should have been able to go see her mother without being killed by someone who illegally obtained a gun,” he said.
The Star’s wire services and staff writers Lynn Horsley, Dave Helling and Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.