A president’s tears

The tears that streamed down President Barack Obama’s face as he delivered stirring remarks on Tuesday about his executive action aimed at reducing gun violence punctuated the grief so many of us feel about the horrendous loss of so many lives across our nation. But it’s fair to wonder whether his emotions – and our own – are churned by the frustration of knowing that the president’s actions, while commendable, are a far cry from the comprehensive national reform needed to staunch the constant bloodletting across our nation.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh gamely supported the president’s plan and was there at the White House to show that America’s mayors and police departments are fully behind his push to toughen background checks and broaden the definition of gun dealer. Walsh understands that whatever measures Boston takes to mitigate the flow of illegal guns on our streets are always undermined by an antiquated federal system that allows criminals to meet their needs in other states.

“Boston is no stranger to gun violence, and although we’re experiencing a 16-year low in homicides, we continue to see illegal guns involved in shootings on our streets and in our neighborhoods,” Walsh said after the White House press conference. “With nearly 70 percent of Boston’s crime guns coming from outside Massachusetts, we know that this is not just a local issue, or an inner-city issue. Guns move across city and state lines, and all too easily from legal ownership to criminal possession.” 

Of course, extremists on the right — including erstwhile “moderate” Republicans like Jeb Bush – were quick to slam the president’s plan, no matter how modest. Refreshingly, our governor, Charlie Baker, received the plan warmly.

One element of the president’s plan that should be expedited nationally is the implementation of “smart gun” trigger-lock technology. The technology now exists to use fingerprint recognition or other biometric information to prevent anyone other than the lawful gun owner from firing a weapon. The gun lobby has fought back furiously against such a common-sense safeguard.

“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you have the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same for guns? If we can do it for your iPad, there’s no reason we can’t do it” for guns, the president said on Tuesday. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure they can’t pull the trigger of a gun.” The president has directed the departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to research smart gun technology and report back within 90 days with a strategy to “expedite the real-world deployment of such technology for use in practice.”

A 2013 Department of Justice review of the technology found that “smart guns” could help reduce “accidental deaths and the use of stolen guns in criminal activities,” according to the White House. “But tens of thousands of people are still injured or killed by firearms every year – in many cases by guns that were sold legally but then stolen, misused, or discharged accidentally,” the president wrote in a memo to the secretary of defense, the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security. “Developing and promoting technology that would help prevent these tragedies is an urgent priority.”

US Sen. Edward Markey has introduced legislation for the so-called “Handgun Trigger Safety Act” in the last two sessions of Congress. “Smart gun technology has the potential to save lives by keeping guns literally out of the hands of those who should not have them,” the senator said. Sadly, his bills have gone nowhere in a Congress that is deathly afraid of crossing the National Rifle Association.

We applaud the president’s leadership on this issue. We hope his call to action, however modest, will prompt gun owners to reject the hardliners in their ranks whose obstinance is costing us dearly in wasted American lives.