A day after police chiefs from around the United States called for universal background checks to be required in order to purchase firearms, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue of gun control in an address to top law enforcement officers in his adopted hometown of Chicago, which has been plagued by gun violence in recent years.
In a broad ranging speech at the 122nd International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference on Tuesday, Obama called for "common sense" gun safety reforms nationwide and a ban military-grade assault weapons to protect both civilians and police officers.
"Fewer gun safety laws don't mean more freedom, they mean more fallen officers," Obama said. "They mean more grieving families, and more Americans terrified that they or their loved ones could be next."
On Monday at the conference, American police chiefs said that the proliferation of firearms has contributed to the uptick in homicide rates in many US cities this year. Current rules on background checks apply to licensed dealers, but up to 40 percent of firearms sales involve private parties or gun shows and do not require checks, the chiefs said.
"This is a no-brainer, this is the simplest thing in the world," Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said. "It troubles me all the time."
Obama noted on Tuesday that Chicago — where he worked as a community organizer and law professor for many years — is a city where shooting fatalities occur on a daily basis, and at a much higher rate than other major metropolises, including New York and Los Angeles. The city had more murders in September than in any other month in more than a decade.
"It's risky enough responding to a domestic violence call or burglary in progress without having to wonder if the suspect is armed to the teeth, maybe has better weapons than you do," Obama said.
The bloodshed inspired another nickname for the Windy City: "Chiraq." There have been more than 1,000 fatal shootings in Chicago this year alone — and more Americans have been killed in the city over the last 15 years than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The city itself has strict gun control rules that prevent new handguns from being sold, the laws in surrounding states and counties are much more lax. Chicago police estimate that some 60 percent of gun crimes in the city are committed with weapons purchased in other states.
"It is easier for a lot of young people in this city and in a lot of your communities to buy a gun than a book," Obama said.
Recent mass shootings in America — including eight fatalities at Oregon's Umpqua Community College, the shooting of reporters Allison Parker and Adam Ward in Virginia, and the massacre of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina — have been met with divergent responses on the issue of gun control. Some relatives and activists called for background checks and other restrictions after the incidents, but there has also been pushback.
'It is easier for a lot of young people in this city and in a lot of your communities to buy a gun than a book.'
When Obama visited Roseburg, Oregon earlier this month to offer his condolences to the relatives of victims of the community college shooting, gun rights activists, some carrying holstered guns, arrived at the airport to protest what they saw as the president pushing a gun control agenda amid a national tragedy.
Obama has said he would consider taking executive action to enact tighter gun controls, a remark that Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have used to campaign on their pro-gun platforms, warning that the president "is coming for your guns."
In his speech Tuesday, the president thanked police across the country for helping to cut America's violent crime rate in half. Amid nationwide protests on biased policing and law enforcement, the president also said that officers should not be expected to bear the sole responsibility for societal problems caused by unemployment, lack of education, poor drug treatment programs, and inadequate gun control laws.
"Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system," he said. "I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That's part of wearing the badge.
"I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve," he added.
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The day before the president's address, police arrested 66 Black Lives Matter activists as they rallied outside the building where the conference was taking place. The anti-police brutality protesters were demanding greater community input on law enforcement reforms.
A spate of high profile deaths of black men at the hands of police in Missouri, New York and elsewhere, coupled with a spiraling number of police deaths, has rocked the law enforcement community and highlighted racial disparities.
A dozen police officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter this year for shootings that occurred in the line of duty. That is an unusually high number, up from an average of about five cases a year from 2005 to 2014, according to academic research.
Obama also addressed the need for fairer sentencing laws to end mass incarceration. Reiterating his previous statements that, while he doesn't have sympathy for violent offenders or drug traffickers, "it's also important to acknowledge that having millions of black and Latino men in the criminal justice system without any ability for most of them to find a job after they are released… that's not a sustainable situation."
The president said it is possible for authorities to fight the illicit drug trade "without relying solely on incarceration."
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