Obama: Tears, Speeches Aren't Enough; Time to Act on Gun Control

The president and others call on Americans to raise their voices.

Posted: 03/28/2013 03:46 PM EDT

Forty-one years ago, the husband of Rev. Crystal Kuykendall was killed on the streets of East Orange, New Jersey, by what is known as a "Saturday night special," or an inexpensive handgun. She spent what would have been his birthday at the White House to hear President Obama speak about the lingering pain of such a loss and issue a call to Congress to pass common sense gun control measures.

"I look back on the pain I felt 41 years ago, and I realize that even as we speak, another wife, another mother is going through the same thing," Kuykendall told BET.com. "We ought to be ashamed. We are the most advanced country in the world, but have more gun violence than any other country."

She was echoing sentiments expressed by Obama, who in remarks delivered in the East Room, noted that nearly 100 days have passed since the nation was rocked by the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary, but there has been little movement on implementing measures that aim to prevent such a horrific tragedy from occurring again and to reduce gun violence overall.

"The entire country pledged we would do something about it and that this time would be different," he said. "Shame on us if we've forgotten."

Obama also cited poll numbers that show 90 percent of Americans, including more than 80 percent of Republicans and gun owners, support background checks that will prevent criminals or people suffering from mental illness from buying guns.

"Think about that. How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?" he said to laughter. "It never happens."

Yet, no such plurality exists on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are poised to begin debate and vote on gun control measures in the coming weeks, including tougher penalties for gun trafficking, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, expanding access to mental health services and whether to arm school guards.

The president urged Americans to ask their senators and representatives if they're part of the 90 percent, and if not, why not.

There are some lawmakers who may personally support the proposals, but fear the wrath of what Obama called "powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, in an interview with BET.com, pointed out how the loudest of those voices, the National Rifle Association, has had its best fund-raising season ever, and is diminishing the likelihood that a stand-alone bill will be passed this year. 

But Cummings is hopeful about a bill he co-sponsored that stiffens the punishment for gun trafficking and makes it a federal crime. Selling guns has become the "crime du jour" in many African-American communities, he added, because the lack of gun trafficking laws makes it a less risky enterprise than dealing drugs.

"That is the law that I think will help to at least put a damper on the flow of guns going into our communities and it is the most likely to pass," he said.

California Rep. Barbara Lee is "cautiously optimistic" that a gun control bill will pass this year, in spite of the NRA, but is concerned that it won't include an assault weapons ban.

"I think it's important for people in this country to rise up. Come to Washington, email, write, let their members of Congress know that they have the political backing to do this," Lee told BET.com.

Obama agrees.

"Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change," he said, adding later that tears, expressions of sympathy and speeches aren't enough. "Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real."

Kuykendall, who has been lobbying lawmakers on the issue since her husband's murder, is amazed and alarmed by the slow progress, noting that in the past four decades, guns have become more technologically advanced and prolific.

"I am saddened that gun violence has gotten so much worse," she said. "It's a horrific pain."

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(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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