President Barack Obama spoke for the nation this week in lamenting the senseless gun violence in America. Coming the same week that students and police officers were murdered in the latest spasms of violence, the president struck an appropriate tone, mindful of the pain for this new batch of families as Congress and state legislatures remain under the thumb of the National Rifle Association.
Hours after a teenage gunman killed a student and wounded a teacher before fatally shooting himself, Obama said his failure to tighten the gun laws was the "biggest frustration" of his presidency. He decried that school shootings had become "the norm," blasted America's gun violence as "off the charts" and dismissed the argument by the gun-rights lobby that new laws should focus on improving access to mental health services instead of restricting access to weapons. "The United States," he said, "does not have a monopoly on crazy people."
Obama's appeal to common sense and urgency captured the helplessness Americans feel every time a new mass shooting breaks across the television screen. Since the 2012 school attack in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 students and six staffers, there have been at least 74 shootings on school campuses alone — and 13 in the past eight weeks. Seven people were killed across the country in high-profile shootings this past week. In the Tampa Bay area, five people have been shot to death in the first 11 days of June, including a Tampa man who was murdered Wednesday.
Even after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, the U.S. Senate could not pass even a water-downed expansion of the background check on gun sales. The disconnect with reality grows by the day. The Pew Research Center reported in April that the proportion of gun owners who owned a weapon for protection (rather than sport or hunting) nearly doubled between 1999 and last year, to almost half of all gun owners, even though the nation's violent crime rate dropped 26 percent over the same period.
Mental health plays a role, but America's gun violence is fueled by the almost unfettered access to weapons and ammunition. Pew found that only 2 percent of gun owners possessed a weapon out of constitutional concerns. And why would they? Americans hold 310 million firearms, nearly half of the 650 million in civilian circulation worldwide. Guns are more common here than in such lawless societies as Yemen and Iraq. No one is suggesting taking away an Americans' lawful right to possess firearms under the Second Amendment. Polls show that even NRA members overwhelmingly favor expanding background checks to the nearly 40 percent sold privately that currently go unregulated.
Obama put the burden of forcing Congress to act squarely on the American public. The monied fronts for the gun industry will continue to dictate the nation's gun safety laws until elected officials fear the voters more than the industry. The only question is how many more innocent lives in the coming weeks, months or years will be lost in the process.