Gun control legislation wasn't a priority for Obama on the stump.
Image by Carolyn Kaster, File / AP
Other steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress. This has been true for some time -- particularly when it touches on the issues of guns. And I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation -– that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.
But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- (applause) -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily. (Applause.) These steps shouldn’t be controversial. They should be common sense.
So I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction -- not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe -– from improving mental health services for troubled youth -- (applause) -- to instituting more effective community policing strategies. We should leave no stone unturned, and recognize that we have no greater mission as a country than keeping our young people safe. (Applause.)
And as we do so, as we convene these conversations, let’s be clear: Even as we debate government’s role, we have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government alone can't fill. (Applause.) It’s up to us, as parents and as neighbors and as teachers and as mentors, to make sure our young people don’t have that void inside them.
It’s up to us to spend more time with them, to pay more attention to them, to show them more love so that they learn to love themselves -- (applause) -- so that they learn to love one another, so that they grow up knowing what it is to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes and to view the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s up to us to provide the path toward a life worth living; toward a future that holds greater possibility than taking offense because somebody stepped on your sneakers.
That’s the difference that we can make in our children’s lives and in the lives of our communities. That’s the legacy we must leave for the next generation. (Applause.)
Q Mr. President, we have a question that is very important for us and also our neighbors in Mexico. You have supported the President Calderón policy against drug trafficking. Now, there's a new President who will be taking office at the same time if you were to win. So do you think that after 65,000 deaths it's time to change the strategy? Can you consider the 65,000 a failure and the policy should change?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously, there has been an extraordinary battle within Mexico to try to gain control over territories that, in some cases, have been just terrorized by these drug cartels. And I commend President Calderón for his courage in standing up to these cartels, and we have worked very closely and cooperatively with them in dealing with this issue.
Now, what I will be saying to the new President of Mexico when he takes office is that we want to continue that cooperation, and we recognize this is a threat on both sides of the border. We make a mistake if we just say this is Mexico's problem because we obviously generate a lot of demand for drugs in this country, and guns and cash flow south at the same time as drugs flow north. That’s why --
Q How many more people have to die before this issue --
THE PRESIDENT: Well, what we need to do is to weaken the grip of these drug cartels, and there are a couple of things we can do. Number one, the United States can focus on drug treatment and prevention, and helping people deal with addiction, making sure that young people are not getting hooked on drugs. If we can reduce demand, that means less cash flowing into these drug cartels. And we have actually beefed up our investment and support of prevention, because we have to treat this as a public health problem here in the United States, not just a law enforcement problem.
The other thing that we try to do is to work much more aggressively in preventing the flow of guns and cash down into Mexico. And so interdiction has to work both ways.
But ultimately, Mexico is also going to have to come to terms with the fact that in some communities and in some cities, law enforcement has been outgunned or compromised by the strength of these drug cartels. And we want to help them, but they’re going to also have to take action to continue to keep pressure on these drugs cartels. And that includes not just police, by the way, it also means the judiciary, their prosecutors -- that if they capture drug kingpins that they actually stay in jail.
There’s a whole series of issues involved in law enforcement, and we’re proving them advice, but ultimately they’re a sovereign country and they’re going to have to take some of those steps as well. But we want to be partners with them throughout this process.
MS. CROWLEY: Because what I want to do, Mr. President -- stand there for a second, because I want to introduce you to Nina Gonzalez, who brought up a question that we hear a lot both over the Internet and from this crowd.
Q President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or plan to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
THE PRESIDENT: We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen, and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.
But there have been too many instances during the course of my presidency where I’ve had to comfort families who have lost somebody -- most recently, out in Aurora. Just a couple of weeks ago -- actually probably about a month, I saw a mother who I had met at the bedside of her son who had been shot in that theater. And her son had been shot through the head. And we spent some time and we said a prayer. And remarkably, about two months later, this young man and his mom showed up, and he looked unbelievable -- good as new. But there were a lot of families who didn’t have that good fortune, and whose sons or daughters or husbands didn’t survive.
So my belief is that, A, we have to enforce the laws we’ve already got; make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement.
But I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced, but part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence -- because, frankly, in my hometown of Chicago there’s an awful lot of violence, and they’re not using AK-47s, they’re using cheap handguns.
And so what can we do to intervene, to make sure that young people have opportunity? That our schools are working? That if there’s violence on the streets, that working with faith groups and law enforcement, we can catch it before it gets out of control.
And so what I want is a comprehensive strategy. Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. But part of it is also going deeper and seeing if we can get into these communities and making sure we catch violent impulses before they occur.
MS. CROWLEY: Governor Romney, the question is about assault weapons, AK-47s.
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: Yes, I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We, of course, don't want to have automatic weapons, and that's already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.
What I believe is we have to do, as the President mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have and to change the culture of violence we have. And you ask how are we going to do that? And there are a number of things. He mentioned good schools. I totally agree. We were able to drive our schools to be number one in the nation in my state, and I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll give people the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that.
But let me mention another thing, and that is parents. We need moms and dads helping raise kids. Wherever possible, the benefit of having two parents in the home -- and that's not always possible -- a lot of great single moms, single dads, but, gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea, because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity and bring them in the American system.
The greatest failure we’ve had with regards to gun violence in some respects is what is known as Fast and Furious, which was a program under this administration. And how it worked exactly I think we don't know precisely, but where thousands of automatic and AK-47-type weapons were given to people that ultimately gave them to drug lords that used those weapons against their own citizens and killed Americans with them. And this was a program of the government. For what purpose it was put in place, I can't imagine. But it’s one of the great tragedies related to violence in our society which has occurred during this administration, which I think the American people would like to understand fully.
It’s been investigated to a degree, but the administration has carried out executive privilege to prevent all the information from coming out. I’d like to understand, who were the ones that did this, what the idea was behind it, why it led to the violence. Thousands of guns going to Mexico --
THE PRESIDENT: Candy.
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: -- drug lords --
MS. CROWLEY: Governor, if I could, the question was about these assault weapons that once were banned and are no longer banned. I know that you signed an assault weapons ban when you were in Massachusetts. Obviously with this question, you no longer do support that. Why is that? Given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings, why is that, that you’ve changed your mind?
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: Well, Candy, actually, in my state, the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks came together and put together a piece of legislation. And it’s referred to as an assault weapon ban, but it had, at the signing of the bill, both the pro-gun and the anti-gun people came together because it provided opportunities for both that both wanted. There were hunting opportunities, for instance, that hadn’t previously been available and so forth. So it was a mutually agreed upon piece of legislation.
That’s what we need more of, Candy. What we have right now in Washington is a place that’s gridlocked.
MS. CROWLEY: So if you could get people to agree to it, you’d be for it?
THE PRESIDENT: Candy.
GOVERNOR ROMNEY: We haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work at a bipartisan basis. I was able to do that in my state and bring these two together.
THE PRESIDENT: Candy.
MS. CROWLEY: Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I think Governor Romney was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it. And he said that the reason he changed his mind was, in part, because he was seeking the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. So that’s on the record.
But I think that one area we agree on is the importance of parents and the importance of schools -- because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they’re less likely to engage in these kind of violent acts. We’re not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed, and we’ve got to make sure that they don’t get weapons, but we can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.
And, Candy, we haven’t had a chance to talk about education much, but I think it is very important to understand that the reforms we’ve put in place, working with 46 governors around the country, are seeing schools that are some of the ones that are the toughest for kids starting to succeed -- we’re starting to see gains in math and science.
When it comes to community colleges, we are setting up programs, including with Nassau Community College, to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school, but now are getting another chance -- training them for the jobs that exist right now. And in fact, employers are looking for skilled workers, and so we’re matching them up, giving them access to higher education. As I said, we have made sure that millions of young people are able to get an education that they weren’t able to get before. Now --
MS. CROWLEY: Mr. President, I have to move you along here. You said you wanted to get this question so we need to do it here.
THE PRESIDENT: Just one second, because this is important. This is part of the choice in this election. When Governor Romney was asked whether teachers -- hiring more teachers was important to growing our economy, Governor Romney said that doesn’t grow our economy.
MS. CROWLEY: Mr. President, it was guns here so I need to move us along. The question was guns so let me --
THE PRESIDENT: But this will make a difference in terms of whether or not we can move this economy forward for these young people and reduce our violence.