WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday angrily said America had made a “political choice” to allow mass shootings like the one in Oregon to occur and blasted the National Rifle Association lobby group for blocking reform of U.S. gun laws.
Appearing in the White House briefing room with a grim expression and a frustrated tone, Obama challenged U.S. voters of all political stripes to hold their leaders accountable if they wanted to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
“This is a political choice that we make, to allow this to happen every few months in America,” Obama told reporters after the latest shooting at a community college in which nine people were killed before police fatally shot the gunman.
“We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”
Obama, a Democrat, visited the town for a campaign stop during his first run for the White House in 2008. Since he took office, there have been more than a dozen mass shootings in America.
He and Vice President Joe Biden made a concerted push for broad gun control reforms after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting of young children that shocked the country, but they were unsuccessful.
Obama has blamed the National Rifle Association (NRA) for that failure, which he has called one of the biggest frustrations of his time in office.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike offered thoughts and prayers for the victims and family members of the Oregon massacre on Thursday, but a visibly upset Obama said that was not sufficient.
“We’ve become numb to this,” he said.
Nodding to the arguments that such shootings are often committed by the mentally ill, Obama said it was clear that anyone who commits such crimes had a “sickness in their minds.”
“But we are not the only country on Earth who has people with mental illnesses who want to do harm to other people,” he said. “We are the only advanced country on Earth who sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
The president referenced shootings in Australia and Britain that led to reforms that largely stopped such massacres there.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to bear arms, a cherished freedom that has great resonance with many voters. Obama, however, said it did not make sense to argue that the Constitution prevented sensible reforms.
After the Newtown massacre the president proposed more background checks for gun sales and pushed to ban more types of military-style assault weapons, but he failed to convince enough lawmakers to support the restrictions.
Obama exhorted gun owners to question whether the gun lobby represented their views. He did not mention the NRA by name, but his comments were clearly directed at that group, which has broad political influence in Washington.
“Think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it is speaking for you,” he said.
A spokesman for the NRA declined comment, saying it was the group’s policy “not to comment until all the facts are known.”
Obama spoke mainly without notes, anticipating the arguments gun advocates would brandish in the wake of the shooting. He said he knew his opponents would criticize him for politicizing a tragedy.
“This is something we should politicize,” he said. “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives.”
Obama said he would continue to press for reform every time such a shooting takes place until he leaves office in 2017. But the White House has made clear that it was unlikely to attempt another broad push on gun control through the Republican-led Congress.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Shumaker