Facing a national gun violence epidemic and fierce resistance in Congress to do something about it, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions Tuesday aimed at reducing the toll of firearm-related injury and death.

Barack Obama at White House lectern surrounded by peopleChief among his four-pronged approach to immediately strengthen existing gun laws is to require more gun sellers to obtain a license and conduct background checks of would-be gun purchasers. This includes Internet sales or purchases at gun shows, two loopholes of current safeguards. This will help keep guns out of the wrong hands, Obama said, as will strengthening the background check system.

Obama also outlined plans to help make communities safer by increasing enforcement of existing laws, including protections for victims of domestic violence, and announced a $500 million increase for mental health treatment while increasing mental health reporting to the background check system.

“High-profile mass shootings tend to shine a light on those few mentally unstable people who inflict harm on others,” Obama said. “But the truth is, is that nearly two in three gun deaths are from suicides. So a lot of our work is to prevent people from hurting themselves.”

Lastly the president announced efforts to make guns safer by using the purchasing power of the federal government to help shape improvements in gun safety technology.

Public health and safety leaders applaud

“Our nation’s epidemic of gun violence exacts far too high a toll on the health of our communities,” said APHA Executive Director Georges C. Benjamin, MD, who attended the White House announcement, in a news release. “The actions the president is announcing today are important steps to help keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. These are steps he is able to take using existing law to strengthen gun safety protections, and we applaud them.”

During the emotional White House address, Obama honored the lives of those lost and injured by firearms used in mass shootings, suicides, domestic violence and accidental yet preventable shootings. He recognized former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered serious injuries five years ago this week when a gunman shot her and 18 others at an Arizona supermarket.

Giffords and husband Mark Kelly have since become leading gun safety advocates heading up Americans for Responsible Solutions and praised the president’s actions.

“We thank the president for standing up to the gun lobby and announcing the most significant national achievement for gun safety since the Brady Bill 22 years ago,” the couple said in a statement. “The administration’s leadership will significantly narrow the loopholes that let dangerous people buy guns without a background check — a step that the majority of Americans, including Republicans and gun owners like us, support.”

“Background checks have blocked more than 2.4 million gun sales to prohibited purchasers, saving countless lives,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement. “The problem is every day there are thousands of commercial sales where background checks are not required. Thanks to the president’s historic action today that will no longer be the case.”

Everytown for Gun Safety Chair and former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg called the president’s actions “an important victory for public safety and a setback for criminals and gun traffickers.”

“With Congress still ducking the issue of gun violence, the president and Vice President Biden are standing up and taking action.,” he said in a statement. “I thank them for listening to the voices of everyday Americans, who are helping to advance common-sense gun safety policies in cities and states around the country.”

‘Congress needs to act’

While the executive actions take immediate effect, their protections only go so far. The president and others underscored that much greater progress on the issue is only possible with congressional action.

Our nation's epidemic of gun violence exacts far too high a toll on the HEALTH of our communities“Now, I want to be clear,” Obama cautioned. “Congress still needs to act.”

“Once Congress gets on board with common-sense gun safety measures we can reduce gun violence a whole lot more. But we also can’t wait. Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives — actions that protect our rights and our kids. APHA’s Benjamin agreed.

“Clearly more must be done, and as the president has said, Congress needs to act,” he said.

“Congress should quickly adopt common-sense measures to prevent gun violence in our communities. These include requiring universal background checks and providing adequate and unrestricted funding for research to better understand firearm-related violence and reduce injuries caused by guns.”

Benjamin urged advocates to join APHA in calling on Congress to pass commonsense measures to reduce gun violence.

Obama plans to continue a national conversation on gun violence prevention this week during a town hall event hosted on CNN Thursday night at 8 p.m. EST.

Learn more about the public health implications of gun violence on APHA’s gun violence page.

Photo courtesy WhiteHouse.gov