WASHINGTON — Addressing a question about gun violence from a UC Santa Barbara student Tuesday, just days after a mass shooting on the California campus and hours after another shooting at a high school in Oregon, President Obama called the lack of legislative action on a background check for gun purchases "the biggest frustration" of his presidency.
"I don't know if anybody saw the brief press conference from the father of the young man who had been killed at Santa Barbara — and as a father myself I just — I couldn't understand the pain he must be going through and just the primal scream that he gave out. Why aren't we doing something about this?" Obama said. "And I will tell you that, I have been in Washington for a while now and most things don't surprise me. The fact that 20 6-year-olds were gunned down in the most violent fashion possible and this town couldn't do anything about it was stunning to me."
After a pitched legislative battle where the president inserted himself directly into the lobbying process to pass a gun-control bill failed following the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shooting that left more than 20 elementary students dead, Obama tore into Congress, blaming them for what he called "a pretty shameful day in Washington."
More than a year later, speaking in a Q&A with Tumblr users at the White House, Obama made it clear the focus of his frustration has shifted from Congress to the electorate.
"If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change," Obama said. "I've initiated over 20 executive actions to try to tighten up some of the rules and the laws, but the bottom line is, is that we don't have enough tools right now to really make as big of a dent as we need to."
Congress is powerless against the gun lobby, Obama argued, because pro-gun-control voters do not have the energy behind them that anti-gun-control voters do.
"And most members of Congress — and I have to say to some degree this is bipartisan -- are terrified of the NRA. The combination of, you know, the NRA and gun manufacturers are very well-financed and have the capacity to move votes in local elections and congressional elections," Obama said. "And so if you're running for office right now, that's where you feel the heat. And people on the other side may be generally favorable towards things like background checks and other common-sense rules, but they're not as motivated, so that's not -- that doesn't end up being the issue that a lot of you vote on."
There has been little talk of a renewed push for gun control legislation since the Newtown-era bill failed in the Senate. The UC Santa Barbara shooting led to some legislative action in Congress focused on mental health, but the president said that focus is not going to get the job done.
"You know, the United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It's not the only country that has psychosis. And yet, we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than any place else," Obama said. "Well, what's the difference? The difference is, is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses and that's sort of par for the course."
Obama said it's up to the American people to drive Washington when it comes to alleviating the problem of mass gun violence.
"The country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm. And we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me," Obama said. "I am prepared to work with anybody, including responsible sportsmen and gun owners, to craft some solutions. But right now, it's not even possible to get even the mildest restrictions through Congress. And we should be ashamed of that."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.