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Editorial: Listen to the American public on gun reform

President Barack Obama wipes away tears from his eyes as he speaks in the East Room of the White House Tuesday about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Behind President Barack Obama’s executive actions on guns Tuesday is this truth: A majority of the American people really do support sensible, common-sense reforms.

You won’t hear that from the gun lobby, which keeps pushing new initiatives to get more unregulated guns in the hands of more people, including those with criminal backgrounds or even on the government’s list of terrorism suspects. But poll after poll shows the gun lobby is wrong.

For example, Americans consistently have told pollsters they want expanded background checks for firearms purchases — as many as 92 percent in an October CBS News/New York Times poll, including 87 percent of Republicans. In that poll, nearly 80 percent thought people with mental illness shouldn’t be able to buy guns, 70 percent wanted a federal database to track all gun sales, and 57 percent favored a ban on assault-style weapons.

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Those are powerful numbers. It may come slowly, but we believe such broad support bodes well for progress against gun violence.

Obama’s executive actions will:

  • Close a loophole that allows people in the business of selling guns to sell those firearms online or at gun shows to without conducting a background check.
  • Lead to the hiring of 230 more people to help process background checks.
  • Clarify that dealers must notify authorities if guns they ship are lost or stolen in transit.
  • Support federal research into smart gun technology designed reduce accidental gun discharges.
  • Improve the tracing of lost or stolen firearms and expand mental-health reporting to the background check system.

Obama also is proposing $500 million more for mental health care.

It’s important to note what’s not here. No one is talking about taking away hunting rifles or weapons from people who want them to protect their homes. These simply are reforms designed to keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them — people with criminal records or mental illnesses that make them a danger to themselves or others. In a nation with more than 30,000 gun deaths a year, these are reforms that strike most Americans as sensible.

That’s why the objections voiced on Tuesday from the gun lobby and pro-gun politicians sounded hollow. The National Rifle Association said Obama’s executive actions are “ripe for abuse,” when in fact they are intended to stop abuses that already occur.

Some politicians criticized the executive actions as too weak to stop all gun slaughter, as if that is an excuse for doing nothing.

Sensible measures to reduce violence have been blocked in Congress, which is why the only hope of immediate progress lies in Obama’s executive actions and in legislation on state and local levels.

The flip side of this is that reformers must avoid pushing for tactics that don’t have wide support. The Chicago-based National Gun Victims Action Council, for example, is calling on Obama to use his powers under the National Emergencies Act to impose far stronger gun reforms. That is precisely the kind of unilateral action sure to drive away the political support that is essential — a meeting in the common-sense middle — for effective reforms that someday could make America a much safer nation.

The stakes are high. In Chicago, police reported that shootings rose 13 percent in 2015 to 2,900. Five people were killed and 43 were wounded from the start of the New Year’s weekend through Monday night. Most of the weapons used in those shootings were illegal guns — weapons that sensible gun reform targets.

On Tuesday, the father of a first-grader killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School introduced Obama’s speech, saying that “as a nation, we have to do better.”

Most Americans agree. In the end, we believe, their opinion will prevail.

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