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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.