In a press conference at the White House Wednesday, President Obama formally announced a commission led by Vice President Joe Biden to draft a set of "concrete proposals no later than January" to deal with gun violence — a strong pledge that also acknowledged a countrywide debate over the past week. Obama, who has been criticized for condemning gun-related crimes but not doing anything about them, and for being too vague in his and the administration's statements since Friday's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, pledged that Biden's commission would not be like the typical Washington blue-ribbon panel that tends to "study for six months and then publish report that gets read and pushed aside." Obama called on Congress to quickly vote on those proposals, and to confirm a head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which has not been done in six years.
Obama vowed again to commit the powers of his office to what he called an "epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day," solemnly listing as evidence other acts of gun violence across the country since the massacre in Newtown.
Passing new gun laws "won't prevent them all but that cant be an excuse not to try," Obama said. "It won't be easy, but that cant be an excuse not to try." Biden's group will include members of Obama's cabinet and "outside organizations."
After taking an unexpectedly long series of questions on the fiscal cliff, the president added that "any single gun law can't solve all these problems. We're going to have to look at mental health, schools, and a range of things."
The president also has certain options on gun reform at his disposal under executive orders, with or without cooperation from Republicans or the NRA, which will hold a press conference of its own Friday.
Here are the president's remarks before taking questions — the questioned having turned into a story themselves...
Good morning, everybody. It’s now been five days since the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut; three days since we gathered as a nation to pray for the victims. And today, a few more of the 20 small children and six educators who were taken from us will be laid to rest.
We may never know all the reasons why this tragedy happened. We do know that every day since, more Americans have died of gun violence. We know such violence has terrible consequences for our society. And if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation -- all of us -- to try.
Over these past five days, a discussion has reemerged as to what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future, but to reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day. And it’s encouraging that people of all different backgrounds and beliefs and political persuasions have been willing to challenge some old assumptions and change longstanding positions.
That conversation has to continue. But this time, the words need to lead to action.
We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides. And as I said on Sunday night, there’s no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun. We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence. And any actions we must take must begin inside the home and inside our hearts.
But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing. The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can’t steadily reduce the violence, and prevent the very worst violence.
That’s why I’ve asked the Vice President to lead an effort that includes members of my Cabinet and outside organizations to come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January -- proposals that I then intend to push without delay. This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task, to pull together real reforms right now. I asked Joe to lead this effort in part because he wrote the 1994 Crime Bill that helped law enforcement bring down the rate of violent crime in this country. That plan -- that bill also included the assault weapons ban that was publicly supported at the time by former Presidents including Ronald Reagan.
The good news is there’s already a growing consensus for us to build from. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases, so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loopholes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility of doing a background check at all.
I urge the new Congress to hold votes on these measures next year in a timely manner. And considering Congress hasn’t confirmed a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in six years -- the agency that works most closely with state and local law enforcement to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals -- I’d suggest that they make this a priority early in the year.
Look, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. This country has a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s been handed down from generation to generation. Obviously across the country there are regional differences. There are differences between how people feel in urban areas and rural areas. And the fact is the vast majority of gun owners in America are responsible -- they buy their guns legally and they use them safely, whether for hunting or sport shooting, collection or protection.
But you know what, I am also betting that the majority -- the vast majority -- of responsible, law-abiding gun owners would be some of the first to say that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war. I’m willing to bet that they don’t think that using a gun and using common sense are incompatible ideas -- that an unbalanced man shouldn’t be able to get his hands on a military-style assault rifle so easily; that in this age of technology, we should be able to check someone’s criminal records before he or she can check out at a gun show; that if we work harder to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be fewer atrocities like the one in Newtown -- or any of the lesser-known tragedies that visit small towns and big cities all across America every day.
Since Friday morning, a police officer was gunned down in Memphis, leaving four children without their mother. Two officers were killed outside a grocery store in Topeka. A woman was shot and killed inside a Las Vegas casino. Three people were shot inside an Alabama hospital. A four-year-old was caught in a drive-by in Missouri, and taken off life support just yesterday. Each one of these Americans was a victim of the everyday gun violence that takes the lives of more than 10,000 Americans every year -- violence that we cannot accept as routine.
So I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. We won’t prevent them all -- but that can’t be an excuse not to try. It won’t be easy -- but that can't be an excuse not to try.
And I'm not going to be able to do it by myself. Ultimately if this effort is to succeed it’s going to require the help of the American people -- it’s going to require all of you. If we're going to change things, it’s going to take a wave of Americans -- mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals -- and, yes, gun owners -- standing up and saying “enough” on behalf of our kids.
It will take commitment and compromise, and most of all, it will take courage. But if those of us who were sent here to serve the public trust can summon even one tiny iota of the courage those teachers, that principal in Newtown summoned on Friday -- if cooperation and common sense prevail -- then I’m convinced we can make a sensible, intelligent way to make the United States of America a safer, stronger place for our children to learn and to grow.
Thank you. And now I'm going to let the Vice President go and I'm going to take a few questions. And I will start with Ben Feller.