Obama Admits Defeat on Gun Control, Pushes Democrats to Keep Fighting

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President Discusses Executive Action On Guns
"People occupy different realities," Obama said at the town hall. Photo: Pool/2015 Getty Images

President Obama openly crying at a press conference will be the most memorable image of his failure to pass new gun-control legislation, but in another depressing sign, this week he openly admitted that he won’t make any significant progress on the issue during his presidency.

Obama was visibly angry when he delivered an address on the shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, but back in October he was still talking about finding common ground with lawmakers. “This is not something I can do by myself,” he said. “I’ve got to have a Congress and I’ve got to have state legislatures and governors who are willing to work with me on this.”

Now, with Republican lawmakers opposing his most modest effort to strengthen background checks, Obama seems increasingly focused on making gun violence an issue in the 2016 campaign and beyond. He wrote in a New York Times op-ed published Thursday night:

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Reducing gun violence will be hard. It’s clear that common-sense gun reform won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency. Still, there are steps we can take now to save lives. And all of us — at every level of government, in the private sector and as citizens — have to do our part.

Newly resigned to the fact that he’s reaching the limits of what he can do in office, Obama issued a warning to members of his own party:

Even as I continue to take every action possible as president, I will also take every action I can as a citizen. I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform. And if the 90 percent of Americans who do support common-sense gun reforms join me, we will elect the leadership we deserve.

Taya Kyle, the widow of Chris Kyle — who inspired the movie American Sniper — also asked questions at the town hall. She said that expanding background checks wouldn’t stop gun deaths because “the people who are murdering are breaking the law. They don’t have the same moral code that we have.” Chris Kyle was killed at a shooting range in 2013.

We want to think we can make a law and people will follow it but by the very nature of their crime they are not following it,” she added.

Sheriff Paul Babeu, who told Arizona residents to arm themselves after the San Bernardino shooting, also asked Obama a question. He is also running for Congress; he told Obama, “I don’t want your endorsement,” after the president joked, “You sure you want to go to Congress?”

Obama claimed he wanted to have an open dialogue with people on all sides of the issue — even the NRA — and made attempts to relate to gun owners, but it was clear that the cultural divide on the issue is as deep as ever (though a CNN poll found a majority of Americans support the measures proposed this week, regardless of party affiliation). The NRA refused CNN’s invitation to participate in the event, and during the town hall several GOP candidates tweeted about Obama “threatening” legal gun owners, as Donald Trump called for an end to all gun-free zones. “Part of the reason this ends up being a really difficult issue is that people occupy different realities,” Obama said. 

That point was illustrated in a remarkable moment in which the president of the United States had to explain that he’s not engaged in a “conspiracy” to “take everybody’s guns away so that we can impose marshal law.” “I mean, I’m only going to be here for another year,” Obama said. “I don’t know — when would I have started on this enterprise, right?”

"Is that controversial, except on some websites around the country?" Obama asked. The answer is yes — this week Ted Cruz put up a fund-raising page that shows Obama in military gear with the message "Obama Wants Your Guns."

One Republican in Congress, Mississippi representative Steven Palazzo, introduced a resolution that would formally censure Obama for his executive actions on guns. Andrew Jackson is the only president who was censured by Congress.

So while Obama is still making overtures toward gun-owning Republicans, in the short-term he’s setting a more realistic goal: solidifying support for gun control among members of his own party. Obama can make sure guns remain a topic of conversation in the presidential campaign — but the top Democratic candidates don’t need much encouragement. Hillary Clinton has been far more vocal on gun control than she was in 2008, partly because it’s one of the few areas where she’s more liberal than Bernie Sanders (though he backs the president’s efforts, too).

Clinton and Martin O’Malley both gave a shout-out to the president’s remarks on guns on Twitter recently.

The more likely target of Obama’s op-ed threat is congressional Democrats, who could benefit from the support of a sitting president (depending on the district). For years gun control was a tricky issue for Democrats, as they sought to win over centrist voters, but demographic shifts are making it a safer issue for the party. Older white men, the group most likely to own guns, are already voting Republican, but Democrats addressing gun violence may help energize women and minority voters. And as National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein explains, “Gun con­trol is still a dif­fi­cult is­sue for Demo­crats in the struggle for con­trol of Con­gress, largely be­cause the Sen­ate’s small-state bi­as provides dis­pro­por­tion­ate lever­age to the rur­al states where it is most un­pop­u­lar.”

Plus, as the Washington Post notes, the strategy of strengthening Democratic support for gun control at the state level is already having some success — and from what we’ve seen of Obama this week, it’s clear he’s yearning for even a little progress on the issue.

This post has been updated.