Republican Candidates Slam Obama's Gun-Control Plan

Republican presidential candidates responded to President Obama's recently announced executive action for gun control. Chris Keane/REUTERS

Updated | In their first debate since President Barack Obama announced he would take executive order to promote gun control, the Republican presidential candidates slammed the plan, calling it misguided and unconstitutional.

Both the primetime and "undercard" debates took place in North Charleston, South Carolina, not far from where a gunman killed nine worshippers in a church in June 2015. Gun control came up early in the debate between undercard candidates Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, while the seven candidates in the primetime event were asked about the recently announced gun control measures halfway through the debate.

Speaking first, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush praised South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's response to the June killings and blamed the FBI for making a "mistake" in processing the background check for gunman Dylann Roof. "We don't need to add new rules. We need to make sure the FBI does it's job, because that person should not have gotten a gun," Bush said.

Bush also addressed Obama's plan—which would, among other measures, enhance background check requirements and communication between various federal and state agencies—and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has voiced support for gun-control measures. "The first impulse of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is to take rights away from law abiding citizens," Bush said. "I think we ought to focus on what the bigger issue is." Bush characterized the bigger issue as criminals with guns, and mental health.

The moderators also questioned current GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who evoked the mass killing in San Bernardino, California, in December and the attacks in Paris in November. "I am a Second Amendment person," Trump said. "If we had guns in California on the other side, where the bullets went in a different direction, you wouldn't have 14 or 15 people dead right now. Even in wouldn't have 130-plus dead." He added that he agreed with Bush's comments on mental health. "We have a huge mental health problem in this county....The guns don't pull the trigger, it's the people that pull the trigger."

Of Obama's executive order, Trump said, "It's not supposed to happen that way."

Florida Senator Marco Rubio piled on. "The Second Amendment is not an option; it's not a suggestion. It's a constitutional right for every American to protect themselves and their families," he said. Rubio also addressed Obama's call to close the so-called gun show loophole: "Criminals don't buy their guns from a gun show. They don't buy their guns from a collector and they don't buy them from a gun store," he said. "They steal them; they get it from a black market."

Moderators grilled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over his reported support for certain gun-control measures in the past. "In New Jersey, what we have done is to make it easier now to get a conceal-and-carry permit," Christie responded. "The way we've done it is properly, through regulatory action."

Christie also had harsh words for Obama. "The president wants to do things without working with his Congress, without working with the legislature and without getting the consent of the American people," Christie said. "That's a dictatorship, and we have to be very, very concerned about that." Soon after, Christie referred to Obama as "a petulant child," words he has previously used about the president.

When asked how to stop mass shootings and gun violence, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said, "You prosecute criminals. You target the bad guys." Cruz also mentioned his endorsement from lobbyist Gun Owners of America.

Earlier in the evening at the undercard debate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said he had attended gun shows—likely more of them than Obama had, he said—and found no "loophole" to make it easier to purchase guns there. He continued by saying it was in fact not easier to buy guns than it is to buy groceries, responding to a recent comment Obama made, that "there are neighborhoods where it's easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable."

Huckabee also claimed that that "most mass shootings...happened in gun-free zones," a common refrain by gun advocates that Everytown for Gun Safety has said is incorrect.

In an email to Newsweek, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, calls statements such as Huckabee's "recycled" and "insulting to anyone who is truly concerned with public safety." "The best way to prevent these tragedies is to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people intent on doing harm, and the best way to do that is through Brady background checks," Gross says. "On the stages of these Republican debates," he adds, "politicians are more concerned about pandering to the corporate gun lobby than with the very lives of the people they are seeking to represent. It is disgusting."

Democratic front-runner Clinton took to Twitter during the gun control debate: "Nobody's attacking the Second amendment," she tweeted. "We can protect Americans' rights—and also protect families from gun violence.... Comprehensive background checks would ensure those who can responsibly own guns do, and those who can't, don't."

This article has been updated to include comments from Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence.