Obama and Biden unveil bold and significant gun control reform proposals

If they can get it through Congress, this would be a ban with teeth.

“If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.” That was the pledge made by Barack Obama on16 December, at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday, he followed through on the promises he made that day. Taking the podium along with Vice-President Joe Biden, he announced sweeping executive orders and crucial legislative proposals designed to ensure that America will no longer have to witness the horror of mass shootings again on such a terrible, relentless, regular basis.

“No one can know for certain if this senseless act could have been prevented,” said Biden, introducing the President, “but we all know we have a moral obligation — a moral obligation — to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again.” It looks as though he meant it.

Then Obama took the stage. Pointing out that more than 900 Americans have been killed by gun violence since Sandy Hook, Obama read from a series of letters from schoolchildren he received in the aftermath, saying: “These are our kids. This is what they’re thinking about. And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for them, and shield them from harm.”

His speech included the signing of 23 executive orders that give sweeping new powers to those working in law enforcement and mental health care; aim to enforce and vastly strengthen the background-check system; and the Attorney General will review the categories of people who aren't allowed guns, review safety standards on gun-safes and locks, provide training for first responders and school officials in how to deal with school shootings, strengthen mental health care's ability to provide the care needed, as well as its ability to flag up cases where it sees danger, and several that aimed to take real steps towards a national dialogue on guns in the US, including mandating research into the causes of violence.

But the biggest announcements today, and they are huge, were the two policy proposals that every parent, every reasonable man, woman and child had been hoping to hear: the introduction of a general background check for anyone purchasing a gun, and a real ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a ban with the teeth required to prevent arms manufacturers from just circumventing it the way they did last time.

The next battle, therefore, will be in Congress. Obama has made it very clear that he is going all-out on this policy, though he warned that it wouldn't be easy. He is right; the battle will be hard-fought. The power of the pro-gun lobby and the NRA over a large swath of congress is incredible — 213 members of the House of Representatives received NRA campaign donations last year — but it is waning.

At each new legislative announcement, the assault weapon ban and the background check, Obama said “the majority of Americans agree with me on this” — a message to congressmen and woman from both sides of the aisle; effectively, saying in the clearest possible terms that he is speaking with the vox populi today: "defy me — and them — at your peril", he seemed to say.

That means that if this legislation ever had a chance of passing, that chance is now. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week shows that more than 50 per cent of those polled said that the Sandy Hook shooting had made them “more supportive” of gun control legislation, while 58 per cent now say they support the reintroduction of the ban on assault weapons. Obama and Biden are betting that, while a majority of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives oppose the ban, they will be reluctant to be seen opposing it in the face of overwhelming national support. The President will have the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, too.

“I have no illusions about what we’re up against or how hard the task is in front of us,” said Biden. “But I also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken by what happened at Sandy Hook. The world has changed, and it’s demanding action.” To a very great extent, it needs to be pointed out, this was Joe Biden's day as much as Obama's — it was he who was given the wide-ranging brief to come up with solutions; in 33 days he took more than 229 meeetings and has been prepping Congress for the coming storm. These proposals were based on his hard work.

Now it is Obama's turn to lead the fight; he must steer Congress into supporting the legislation, and make sure the national momentum is not lost in doing so. The congressional GOP has proved itself cowardly, and likely will dig its heels in, so the President must do everything he can to bully, cajole, persuade and shame them into making this legislation law. From his speech today, it sounds like he's ready.

The full text of his plan is available here (pdf). You can also watch the video of the announcement below:

Biden and Obama during the press conference at the White House. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood