How Obama Learned to ‘Politicize’ Shootings

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President Obama Addresses The Shooting That Killed 9 At Church In Charleston, South Carolina
Photo: Alex Wong/2015 Getty Images

By now, Barack Obama is a president all too practiced in delivering statements on mass shootings. “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” President Obama said on Thursday morning, of the tragedy at a black church that left nine dead in Charleston, South Carolina.

What was clear today, though, is how much his rhetoric has evolved over the course of those tragedies. The turning point came at the end of his first term with the unimaginable horrors of the Sandy Hook shootings, which compelled him to become much more forceful with his language about changing gun laws. Since then, a note of helpless despair has entered his remarks — and he seems to be making no effort to disguise it.

It was not always this way: In April 2009, less than three months after he was sworn in, a 41-year-old named Jiverly Voong killed 13 people and injured four more at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York. Back then, the president’s statements were extremely measured. “Michelle and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn about the act of senseless violence in Binghamton, NY today,” the president said in a statement at the time. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families and the people of Binghamton. We don’t yet know all the facts, but my administration is actively monitoring the situation and the Vice President is in touch with Governor Paterson and local officials to track developments.”

Later that November, an Army psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 people and injured 32 more in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. A little more than a year later, a disturbed 22-year-old named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tucson supermarket, killing six and wounding 11 more, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Six months after that, James Holmes slaughtered 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. In the speeches and public statements the president gave after each mass shooting, he resisted calls to use the incidents of tragedy to move the country toward debating new gun-control policies. “Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system. And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government,” he said in a speech after the Tucson shooting. “But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do — it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Then, at the end of 2012, came the almost inconceivable tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut: 27 murdered, most of them first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary. Previously in Washington, the quietly agreed upon conventional wisdom was that one should not try to “politicize” a tragedy like a mass shooting by talking about policy proposals meant to stop it from happening again — the mistaken underlying premise being that public policy is not meant to deal with matters of life and death. After Newtown, many advocates of greater gun control, including the president, began to challenge that premise.

Meeting reporters in the White House briefing room on the afternoon of the Newtown shooting, Obama said: “As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

As he worked with the parents of Newtown victims to push for greater gun-control measures in Congress, he made the case in even more explicit terms. “Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?” he asked at an interfaith prayer vigil in the days after the shooting. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.” He continued:

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

His efforts to get gun-control legislation through Congress failed. And as his second term progressed, the horrors have continued: 13 killed and 3 injured in Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard; 3 killed and 16 injured in another shooting tragedy at Foot Hood; 7 dead and 7 wounded in Isla Vista, California — and now 9 dead in Charleston. Through it all, Obama has continued to push for change: “[S]ometimes I fear there’s a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal. We can’t accept this,” he said after the Navy Yard shooting.

Even as he urges Americans not to accept it, it’s hard not to notice the disappointment in his voice. “Let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it,” Obama said Thursday. “I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.” Over the last seven years, the president’s discourse on public tragedy has evolved. Where once he gave the carefully crafted statements of a politician, now he sounds like so many Americans who lament that we keep suffering the same tragedies because our politicians lack the political courage to do anything about it. When he talks, he sounds just like the rest of us.