In His Last Year, Can Obama Complete the Unfinished Business of Gun Control?
By G. Thomas Goodnight
President Obama disclosed last week that he had become a single issue voter. “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform,” he wrote in a Jan. 7 New York Times editorial. ”And if the 90 percent of Americans who do support common-sense gun reforms join me, we will elect the leadership we deserve.” The president’s State-of-the Union speech happened on Tuesday evening. Last week’s vigorous campaign from the Oval Office prompts us to anticipate a SOTU that gestures to the economy, security and foreign affairs. They all do. Yet the president promises also to bring before a fragmented, foot-dragging Congress the terrible “urgency of now.”
The rising number of gun deaths in the United States constitutes a peculiar American problem. Even as overall crime has decreased, gun stores are having trouble keeping pistols on the shelves. For many, personal security requires buying a gun. However, more firearms do not equate to greater safety. The startling fact is that, in the U.S., guns now kill people at the same rate as traffic accidents, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. Local and state governments have gotten busy trying to cope and adjust in a variety of ways, yet until this week, federal efforts have been at a standstill. Even when terrorist attacks jarred Paris and were brought home to San Bernardino, Calif., Congress refused to engage in productive debate on how to solve the problem.
President Obama has tipped off the new year with a campaign to reduce gun deaths. First, he issued a set of aggressive executive orders, and then he called Congress out on its failure to act. The politics of gun control has taken on a new centrality in the eighth year of Obama’s administration. With the president this week delivering his last State of the Union speech and White House hopefuls fighting over the meaning of the Second Amendment and other issues, Obama’s new campaign reminds us that firearm deaths are ugly facts animating “the urgency of now.”
In his Jan. 1 weekly address from the White House. Obama recounted his administration’s economic, health, energy, climate and marriage equality successes before talking at length about Gabrielle Giffords, a former U.S. congresswoman who survived an attempted assassination during a public event in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011. Obama then announced that he wished to take up Giffords’ unfinished business by making the “epidemic of gun violence” a priority on the nation’s agenda.
Deaths in traffic accidents are fair game for research, science, regulation and law enforcement, but somehow, the same is not true for guns, even as roughly 30,000 Americans are fatally injured by them each year. In addition, guns are consumer products, and the government claims to protect laborers, consumers and investors against hazardous products.
But weapon ownership is invested with deep symbolism for many Americans. On the positive side, gun purchases endow their owners with a sense of power, pride and independence; on the negative side, the same freedom-loving gun toters can also become plagued by deep suspicions that dark forces are at work around them. As the saying goes, the tree of liberty is watered with the blood of tyrants. But in modern democracy, gun deaths play out much more often as personal tragedies than moments of empowerment.
The trauma and loss of accidental or deliberate gun deaths is accompanied by many different rituals and methods of coping, including: ceremonies of private grief over suicides; the dulling of our emotions to the urban terror of gang shootings; and the glamorizing of assault in TV crime mysteries. Both professional and citizen reporters keep the news coming.
In addition, media coverage of crime is selective. Reporting on firearm deaths and injuries ranges from news briefs about daily killings to splashy headlines accorded the spectacle of mass murders. Just as technology undergoes a hype cycle of building expectations for new products, so press coverage of gun deaths follows a mourning cycle. Scenes of loss are followed by the chase and the resolution, speculation about security, forensic investigation, and discussions of prevention, with retrospective comparisons. Then the news moves on quickly to other events. In press narratives, death comes locally, personally and crazily manifested. Gun deaths happen by accident, in wrong-time or wrong-place encounters, or for no reason at all.
Part of the job description of the American president includes making public speeches on occasions of mourning, as civic grief demands a public pause in daily affairs. Thus, Ronald Reagan delivered an address on the deaths of the Challenger astronauts in 1986; Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and worked to begin the long healing process there; in 2001, George W. Bush met with national leaders to grieve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — even as rescue units were combing the remains of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
For his part, President Obama has had to address such tragedies many times, speaking after the killings that occurred at Fort Hood; in Tucson; at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater; at a Wisconsin Sikh temple; at Sandy Hook Elementary School; at the Washington Navy Yard; at Fort Hood again; at a Jewish community center in Kansas; at a Charleston, S.C., church; at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Do our conventional rituals and traditions of grieving numb us to each event and to the prospect of future tragedies? Obama has even wondered about this on occasion. Is melancholy the only available response? Do Americans — with our famous can-do attitudes — somehow believe that nothing can be done to stop the increase in fatal gun violence?
The transformation of personal tragedies to public issues begins with the question: What if things were different? In keeping with this theme, Obama said on Jan. 1: “We know that we can’t stop every act of violence. But what if we tried to stop even one? What if Congress did something — anything — to protect our kids from gun violence?”
A president is also known, in part, by the associates he keeps. The story of Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly is intimately woven into Obama’s effort to turn gun violence into a public issue. In 2011, six people were killed by Jared Loughner in Tucson — at an open-air public meeting, the most basic forum in which to practice democracy. Giffords was struck by a bullet that went through her brain, left her on the verge of death and altered her powers of communication, necessitating a lengthy recovery.
Recall that with this brutal attack, the ugly partisan, civility-testing debate in Congress was briefly set aside. Political opponents united in clacking condemnations of the shooter and vowing change. The reaction to the 2011 speech was less unseemly than it had been in prior years. That unity didn’t last long, however. Partisanship quickly flowed back into both congressional chambers, even as Giffords returned to vote again in the House and eventually resigned on a day — and on terms of — her own choosing.
Only later, after the trial of Loughner — who pleaded guilty to 19 charges of murder and attempted murder — was gun violence again raised volubly as an issue for Congress. Mark Kelly — Giffords’ husband, a Navy veteran and a NASA astronaut — reopened that debate. At a sentencing hearing for Loughner, Kelly condemned the assassin, explained the costs of violence and asked why Congress continued to do nothing. The fact that it took a war-veteran-turned-astronaut to get gun violence onto the public agenda speaks volumes about congressional lockdown on this issue.
Like Sarah and Jim Brady before them, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly did not retreat in the face of a traumatic event. They turned that violent act back upon itself and animated the dormant cause of gun control. Giffords campaigned, and a lobbying group was formed to provide some possibility of balance to the enormous weight of the National Rifle Association.
Then, the horrific December 2012 shootings of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., once again drew the country’s attention. Many pundits thought that a bipartisan bill would pass. Giffords lobbied personally, but the Senate invoked a filibuster to prevent the issue from being brought to a vote, and the Republican-controlled House did not break with its leadership to let the bill rise to the floor. Despite wide bipartisan support, efforts for gun control were defeated. Action again ground to a halt.
Obama’s new initiative promises to get things going again. True, gun control rhetoric is polarized. The press frames the debate in a deceptive way, giving equal validity to the views of those who support some gun limits and the views of those who support almost none. But the press narratives overlook the broader consensus among gun owners that steps should be taken to reduce gun violence. Meanwhile, the structures of congressional power brook little discussion and obstruct almost any legislation on the issue. The only “urgency of now” that appears to make its way through the institutional setup is the urgent need to avoid becoming a political target of the NRA and thereby risk losing elections. It is as if Grover Norquist’s vow to oppose every tax increase has been replaced by a new vow to never permit meaningful steps to be taken to reduce gun deaths.
The resulting public discussion of gun deaths has been fragmentary and lacking in coherence and direction. Kelly and Giffords — themselves proud gun owners — have, in connection with the president’s work to keep gun violence in public view, taken on the powerful assembly of sources that thwart gun-control efforts at the federal level. Their efforts to construct common-sense solutions and a reasonable ground for action are only part of the current picture, however. The politics of our time have produced a weird national panorama on the issue: While some states are tightening gun controls, others are championing “stand your ground” laws and forcing everyone to deal with “open carry.”
I am a professor of communication at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles, and while in Texas for the holidays I found myself having strange conversations with friends — teachers who were thinking about retiring rather than facing an armed student body, and medical workers who wondered what their workplace policies should be with regard to gun-toting patients.
During the Cold War, the American public had to live with fears of macro-aggression, engaging in duck-and-cover exercises that would allegedly protect them from an atomic bombing. In the 21st century, urban violence takes on a smaller scale when escape routes for personal security are imagined. Locked doors replace bomb shelters in our new world of threats.
Nightmarish international war scenes blend refugee flight with episodes of suburban violence. The events in Paris on Nov. 13 and in San Bernardino on Dec. 2 appeared with such close proximity that boundaries between domestic and imported terrorism blurred. Scenes sometimes now take on a tragicomic element, with reports of angry white males and militia occupation of federal territory resonating in the background with Obama’s gun violence campaign.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting, the Obama administration had been busy studying an array of possible actions. Following Obama’s announcement of his plans to enforce the laws of the land, he continued his efforts on Jan. 4 by meeting with the heads of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and others, and then released “Fact Sheet: New Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence and Make Our Communities Safer” — a list of actions recommended after Sandy Hook that includes: checking for criminals, making enforcement efficient, expanding mental health services, researching safety technology, and managing information. The document seeks reasonable common cause with those who generally oppose restrictions, and in it, firearms are understood as a consumer product. Then, on Jan. 5, the president delivered a coherent, emotional speech from the White House. The speech did not include an analysis of Australian gun laws or the grammatical legerdemain of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on the Second Amendment in the District of Columbia v. Heller. Rather, three bold themes were put into play:
- First, guns are consumer products. Just as the government worked to make cars safer, so guns should be treated in similar manner. The fact that auto and gun deaths now kill at equivalent rates provides the basis for a factual case for change.
- Second, the category of 30,000 deaths creates overlapping constituencies: white, black and brown. Suicides and urban shootings are different categories, but the president’s speech defined the scope of efforts to include reasons for Americans to act broadly.
- Third, the question of Second Amendment rights plays large for the patriot populism that furnishes symbols for conservative commentators and politicians.
The president characterized the common-sense middle like this: “All of us should be able to work together to find a balance that declares the rest of our rights are also important. … [O]ur right to worship freely and safely — that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, S.C. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too. Our right to peaceful assembly — that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette.”
The president, moved by memory, shed tears in recollecting the citizens lost at Sandy Hook.
Of course, tears make news. As always, the press wanted to know if the speech changed any hearts and minds. What was lost to reporters was the significance of the president’s words and actions. Literally, Obama called out Congress for their failure to effectively address gun violence. Just as Kelly and Giffords had identified congressional cowardice at the moment of the nonvote on the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background-checks bill, the president laid questions of accountability on the line as well. In a sense, Congress was also placed in the role of the victim, held hostage by the gun lobby.
In a bid to divide Congress from the public, Obama set the gun violence issue on the same plane of long-term historical struggle as gender equality, African-American emancipation and LGBT rights — reminding the public that these struggles also took time. He then called for civic courage. “[A]ll of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies” and to remember the failure to act “come election time,” he said. The president challenged some members of Congress on their hypocrisy, too; for those claiming that gun violence is a mental problem, he offered a chance to vote on added funds for mental illness.
The moment was reminiscent of President Harry Truman’s fight with the “Do Nothing Congress.” Obama did not call Congress back into session, however. Rather, for the first major act of his last year in office, he took the Senate to task for its refusals in December to permit gun checks on federal terrorist watch lists. He then concluded his address by remembering the sacrifice of Zaevion Dobson — a Knoxville, Tenn., teenager who in a moment had to choose between his own life and protecting his three friends — recalling courage in protection of others. CNN found the events stirring enough to call for a national town meeting on Jan. 7 in Fairfax, Va., which network anchor Anderson Cooper hosted and President Obama led. The National Rifle Association had been invited, but even though some of its members were nearby, the group chose not to attend, appearing through stealth advocacy rather than open presence. This failure was pointed out a number of times. The meeting kicked off with Cooper in a somewhat stilted rehearsal of gun-control arguments that basically asked: What will this president’s legacy be?
Citizens asked questions, each with lives touched by guns but all with different concerns. The widow of Chris Kyle (of “American Sniper” fame) asked whether people put their hopes in something other than gun control. Shouldn’t the decrease in crime be celebrated? Kimberly Corban, a Colorado student attacked by a rapist, asked about personal defense. Cleo Pendleton spoke of the death of her child, who had performed at Obama’s second inauguration. Sheriff Paul Babeu, running for Congress in Arizona, inquired as to whether background checks would stop random shootings. The Rev. Michael Pfleger, whose life commitments involve work in Chicago, pressed for effectiveness on the urban scene. Kris Jacobs introduced the firearms industry’s view to the discussion. Mark Kelly, with Giffords beside him, asked how much would it take for the federal government to confiscate 650 million guns (resonating satirically with Donald Trump’s absurd proposal to deport 12 million “aliens”). Trey Bosley, a young African-American, talked of the loss of family and friends. Meanwhile, Cooper took occasional opportunities to push Obama about whether he could convince conspiracy-minded folks.
In each of these moments, the president acknowledged the importance of the question and integrated themes and issues addressed earlier. That these people were willing to speak of gun violence constitutes, perhaps, a moment for civic courage. The citizens attending the town hall meeting spoke with remarkable dignity and grace, especially in contrast to CNN’s follow-up with a gaggle of news commentators talking over each other and tossing brickbat clichés. Civic courage is sorely needed if the country is to utilize the enormous resources at its disposal to confront gun violence. CNN furnished a start.
Jan. 8, 2016, was the fifth anniversary of the attack on “Congress on Your Corner,” as the shooting in the Safeway parking lot in Tucson has come to be known. Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly’s work and lives are now entangled with Obama’s fortunes. President Obama’s speeches, announcements, orders and tears last week signaled his commitment to staying the course and completing unfinished business in the last year of his presidency. Honoring Giffords, remembering the anniversary of her encounter with gun violence, he has given us a lively, passionate presentation of his new campaign to mitigate the number of fatal gun injuries — an effort that will take place amid the noisy presidential campaigns.
The question remains: Will Congress be on your corner?
G. Thomas Goodnight grew up in Texas and has taught at Northwestern University. He is currently a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and studies the history of American public address.Wait, before you go…
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