Obama's Gun-Control Reality

The president said Thursday that mass-shooting tragedies have happened "too many times." But he won't be able to stop them on his own.

It's all-too-familiar language for President Obama.

In the wake of a shooting Wednesday night at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina that killed nine people, the president said Thursday that "once again" innocent people were dead "in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."

"I have had to speak about this too many times," he said. "Communities have had to endure tragedies like this too many times."

Obama has had to make many similar statements over the course of his presidency—by one count, 14 times—and he's used nearly the same words. After a gunman shot 20 children and six adults in 2012 at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama admonished: "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years.

"We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this," he said at the time, "regardless of the politics."

But no matter how often Obama calls for change—a reckoning on the country's devastatingly routine pattern of mass shootings, a shift in "how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively," real, tangible action—that's all he can actually do.

Just two months after the Newtown shooting, he called on Congress to vote on a slate of gun-control bills in his 2013 State of the Union address. He also unveiled 23 executive actions to be immediately enacted, including a mandate that the Centers for Disease Control research the causes and prevention of gun violence. But in April of that year, his legislative agenda suffered a crippling defeat in the Senate, where every part of the package he championed was emphatically rejected under an intense push from the gun-rights lobby.

As the nation reels from another shooting tragedy, Obama again urged that "it is in our power to do something about it," while acknowledging that "the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now." But with a less-than-sympathetic Congress, the White House is at an impasse—and everyone knows it.

Aboard Air Force One Thursday on the way to California, deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters that the president did not anticipate gun-control legislation advancing in Congress "anytime soon."

"We're very realistic about the political realities," Schultz said. "But that doesn't mean that this isn't a moment for Americans to realize the urgency of this issue and acknowledge it."

He declined to elaborate on what the White House could do to prevent another shooting, save for noting Obama's 2013 executive orders and strong push for Congress to pass gun-control legislation.

"We commenced a significant lobbying campaign to Congress, and we fell short," he said. "Congress fell short."

Gun-control activists said that the majority of the blame rests on Congress' inaction—and a formidably influential gun lobby.

"The president has done about as much as he can without the cooperation of Congress," said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a branch of the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety. "We are against an intractable gun lobby that has been doing this for 30 years." Everytown, in contrast, launched just last year.

Mark Prentice, a spokesman for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions, delivered a similar rebuke of the gun lobby, and put the onus on Congress to move forward on gun-control legislation. He said that in the wake of the 2013 defeat, state representatives have taken up the gun-control mantle. Since Newtown, "eight states have acted to close the loopholes that let dangerous people get guns," he said, and "several states have acted to protect domestic-violence victims from gun violence."

The biggest player of the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, generally doesn't comment in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings such as this one. "Will not be making any public statements until all the facts are known," spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. "There's a lot more that we don't know than we know."