Gun control push at heart of Obama speech
13 February 2013, 13:59
Washington - President Barack Obama brought the wounds inflicted by the recent spate of shooting deaths to Congress on Tuesday, ending his State of the Union address with an emotional plea for tougher gun control.
Speaking for victims' relatives and gun crime survivors among the guests attending the joint session of Congress, he demanded their voices be heard amid the raucous debate triggered by a spate of bloody mass shootings.
Many of those present wore green ribbons to signal support for tighter gun laws, a campaign that has gained strength since December, when a troubled young man burst into a Connecticut school and slaughtered 20 young children.
The massacre in the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown has become a symbol of the threat posed by the millions of guns in private American hands, but it was only the latest of several such attacks to shock the nation.
"It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different," Obama told lawmakers and a national television audience.
Citing polls that suggest most American voters now support some new limit on citizens' access to guns, or at least to military-style assault weapons and high-capacity clips, Obama said it was time for Congress to vote on new laws.
"Because, in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun," he said, in an unabashedly emotional passage of his address.
"One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend," he said.
"Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."
Indicating first Hadiya's parents in the crowd, Obama saluted a series of gun attack victims as tears erupted and applauding supporters came to their feet around the House of Representatives.
"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote," Obama declared.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he said, pointing out the former Arizona congresswoman who was severely wounded in a 2011 gun attack that left six more people dead and 13 wounded, and who now campaigns for gun control.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote," he said, before turning to a list of other communities devastated in recent mass shootings.
"The families of Aurora deserve a vote," he said, as applause swelled. "The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote."
There were an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the United States in 2009, roughly one per citizen, and people in America are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than someone in another developed country.
Polls may point to increasing support for gun control, but despite all the recent killings, previous attempts to limit firearms ownership have foundered in Congress and a previous assault weapon ban expired in 2004.
The 1791 Second Amendment to the US Constitution states that "a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed".
Many interpret this as enshrining the right of all citizens to carry firearms as they see fit, and any moves by federal authorities to limit access to guns are always fiercely opposed by a well-funded firearms lobby.
Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, is working on gun control options and leading Democratic senators are preparing legislation to ban large-capacity magazines and an array of assault weapons.
Giving no ground
But Republicans, many of whom represent states and regions with strong gun-owning traditions, oppose many of the measures.
And, along with the victims of gun violence in Tuesday's audience, there were also unapologetic supporters of gun ownership like rock musician Ted Nugent, a stanch conservative and supporter of the firearms lobby.
Responding to Obama's impassioned address, Republican Senator Marco Rubio gave no ground.
"We were all heartbroken by the recent tragedy in Connecticut," he said.
"We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it."
But Obama's peroration brought most of the room to its feet.
"Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country," he declared. "But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can."