WASHINGTON — President Obama traveled to Orlando Thursday and consoled families whose loved ones were killed during the worst mass shooting in modern US history, while Republicans in Congress showed little sign of embracing significant restrictions on weapons sales.
Obama publicly scolded Republicans and gun lobbyists for continually blocking curbs on gun sales, even as House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters in Washington that he did not want to undercut the Second Amendment.
“Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should meet these families and explain why that makes sense,” Obama said, standing before a makeshift memorial of wreaths and balloons in downtown Orlando.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden laid 49 white roses, honoring each of the lives cut short early Sunday when what authorities have described as a “lone wolf’’ terrorist went on a rampage with a military-style rifle firing high-velocity ammunition into a gay nightclub.
Thursday’s trip to Orlando was Obama’s tenth visit to console a community following a mass shooting during his presidency. He mentioned Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed at an elementary school in 2012, and Aurora, Colo., where 12 were killed in a movie theater earlier that year.
Politics has conspired to make it easy for a terrorist to legally purchase “extraordinarily powerful weapons,” he said.
“Today once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and parents, and they asked, why does this keep happening? And they pleaded that we do more to stop the carnage,” Obama said. “They don’t care about the politics. Neither do I.”
But stalemate continued to rule in Washington, and it was clear Thursday that Obama and his allies in Congress faced a difficult challenge winning tougher rules. Senate Republicans agreed to hold votes on several amendments as early as Monday after a nearly 15-hour filibuster led by Democrat Christopher Murphy of Connecticut. But the chances of any of the measures passing the Republican-controlled chamber — let alone the even more conservative House — are slim.
“My legs are a little bit rubbery but my heart is strong because I know we made a difference yesterday,” Murphy said in a press conference Thursday. “Now we believe we’re on a path to get folks on the record and that’s a start.”
Lawmakers wrangled, with little or no progress, over a possible compromise that would increase scrutiny by federal authorities before weapons could be sold to people on terror watch lists. Proposals for expanded background checks for sales at gun shows and on the Internet appeared doomed.
When asked at a press conference about proposals to keep weapons out of the hands of potential terror suspects, Ryan appeared unmoved.
“Is going after the Second Amendment how you stop terrorism? No, that’s not how you stop terrorism,” Ryan said. “We don’t take away citizens’ rights without due process. . . We’re going to stand up and defend the Constitution.”
Legislation to expand mandatory background checks for gun sales failed in 2013 following the Newtown school shooting. At the time, Democrats controlled the Senate.
Democrats leading the charge accused their Republican colleagues of remaining beholden to the powerful National Rifle Association.
“I think we’ve reached a tipping point. The terrorists we need to fear are not on the streets of Aleppo or Mosul or Fallujah. They are on the streets of the United States,’’ said Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
But the NRA has a “vise-like grip on the Republican Party,” Markey said. “It will not release it easily. This is going to be a titanic struggle on the Senate floor. The NRA has to stand for Not Relevant Anymore in American politics.”
Obama, in his Orlando speech, said that he hopes senators who had previously voted against expanded background checks have a change of heart and that the House “does the right thing and helps end the plague of violence that these weapons of war inflict on so many young lives.”
“We can stop some tragedies. We can save some lives,” Obama said. “If we don’t act, we will keep seeing more massacres like this because we will be choosing to allow them to happen.”
Most Americans for years have shown in polls that they favor stronger background checks and curbs on assault weapons, which have been defined as a semiautomatic rifle that has been modified and can accept large ammunition magazines. The debate after the Orlando killings has also been focused on combating Islamic State and identifying homegrown terrorists who are inspired by extremist websites and social media.
A CBS News poll conducted after the Orlando shooting found that 57 percent of Americans now say they support a nationwide ban on assault weapons, up by 13 percentage points from a poll taken in December.
Arizona Senator John McCain Thursday lashed out at Obama, telling reporters that the president was “directly responsible’’ for the Orlando killings because of his failure to stop Islamic State. He later issued a statement saying he misspoke and that he meant that Obama’s policies in Iraq and Syria were responsible.
Donald Trump expressed interest in blocking weapons sales to suspected terrorists. He announced on Twitter Wednesday that he would be meeting with the NRA, which has endorsed him, about “not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns.”
Then at a campaign rally in Georgia that same day, Trump told the crowd, “I’m going to save your Second Amendment.”
Neither his campaign nor the NRA responded to a question on whether the meeting had been set up.
The NRA, in a statement, said it, too, believes “terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period.” But that is different than passing legislation specifically banning sales to people on watch lists.
The gun lobby supports a bill put forth by Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, that would delay guns sales to those on the terror watch list for up to 72 hours. After that, federal prosecutors would have to persuade a judge to block the sale.
A Democratic bill, proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, would prevent anyone on the list from buying firearms or explosives. If someone on the list tries to purchase a gun, the Justice Department would be notified and a background check would be conducted. The attorney general would be able to prohibit weapons sales to individuals with suspected links to terrorism, even if he or she is not already on the list.
Republicans contend that version would deny due process to those who are erroneously on the terror watch list.
Markey said Trump needs to clarify which bill he supports.
“Donald Trump says he has the ability to talk tough to terrorists but he doesn’t have the courage to talk tough to the NRA,” Markey said. “Donald Trump has to prove that he’s not a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA.”
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called the Republican versions “bunk,” “smokescreen proposals.” Democrats say the waiting period in the Cornyn bill is too short and that requiring the Justice Department to intervene and ask a judge to block the sale is balky and unfeasible.
“It’s a way for them to say they’re doing something when they’re doing nothing, a way for them to pay obeisance to the NRA without changing the world as it is,” Schumer said. “Let’s stop this kabuki dance.’’