What real courage looks like

The president praised a woman who saved her friend's life. We need politicians that brave to fight the gun lobby

Published July 23, 2012 5:06PM (EDT)

President Obama hugs Stephanie Davies, who helped keep her friend, Allie Young, left, alive after she was shot during the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo.        (The White House/Pete Souza)
President Obama hugs Stephanie Davies, who helped keep her friend, Allie Young, left, alive after she was shot during the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo. (The White House/Pete Souza)

President Obama does a great job in his role as consoler in chief. Who wasn't moved by the photo of him hugging Aurora shooting hero Stephanie Davies, the young woman who saved the life of her friend Allie Young, covering Allie's gunshot wound and refusing to leave the theatre, even as the carnage continued? I'm sure the president's visits to the families of the victims of the mass murder, and to the survivors, were comforting.

But I found his Sunday night speech a little flat. I realized I was comparing it to his tour de force in Tucson last year, after Jared Lee Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people. How sad is that: We have multiple presidential speeches about gun massacres to compare in 18 months. I also realized that Obama had a larger political message, one that the nation needed to hear, in Tucson: about ratcheting down violent political rhetoric and the demonization of political opponents, on both sides.

Obama had no larger moral or political message in Aurora -- except an implicit one, I suppose, as he thanked the police and emergency crews and hospital workers who saved lives, the sorts of public workers the GOP often demonizes. (Mitch McConnell called Obama's proposed federal funding to protect such jobs a "bailout" earlier this year, and Republicans in Congress blocked it.) But the president's reference to any kind of larger measures society can take to prevent tragedies like Aurora was shockingly weak tea: "I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country," he said – and then he added, "but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth." Really?

Steve Kornacki has already contrasted Obama's speech to the one President Clinton gave after Colin Ferguson shot two dozen people on a Long Island Rail Road train in December 1993, killing six. “It’s a terrible human tragedy and my sympathies go out to all the families involved,” Mr. Clinton said. “But I hope that this will give some more impetus to the need to act urgently to deal with the unnecessary problems of gun violence in the country.”

Clinton used the tragedy to fight for Sen. Dianne Feinstein's ban on assault weapons, which passed in 1994 but expired in 2004. White House spokesperson Jay Carney already told reporters that the president won't be calling for a reauthorization of that measure. “The president is focused on doing the things that we can do that protect Second Amendment rights, which he thinks is important, but also make it harder for individuals who should not under existing law have weapons to obtain them," Carney said.

Of course there's no chance such a measure would pass Congress today, as Feinstein herself has all but admitted (although she supports reauthorization). This time around, Democrats are as cowardly as Republicans when it comes to standing up to the gun lobby. Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that stricter gun control measures wouldn't prevent "acts of evil," adding, “If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right?” It's a little bit shocking that the governor of a state now infamous for two mass gun murders – Columbine, and now Aurora – won't come out for toughening gun laws in any way, but I guess it shouldn't be.

In his terrific piece about the NRA's role in keeping these weapons in the hands of murderers, Alan Berlow runs down the list of mass gun murders: Tuscaloosa two weeks ago (18 wounded), Tucson in 2011 (six dead, 14 wounded), Binghamton in 2009 (13 dead, four wounded), Ft. Hood in 2009 (13 dead, 29 wounded), Northern Illinois University in 2008 (five dead, 21 wounded), Virginia Tech in 2007 (32 dead, 17 wounded) and of course Columbine in 1999 (12 dead, 21 wounded). And the Los Angeles Times showed many of those killings would have been prevented or at least made less deadly had the assault-weapons ban remained in place, since it banned enormous gun magazines that let shooters fire more shots without reloading.

Aurora killer James Holmes had one assault rifle with a drum clip that could shoot 60 times a minute, plus two Glock pistols with 15-bullet magazines; the defunct federal ban limited clip sizes to 10 rounds. The Times showed how 30-round magazines let Jared Lee Loughner kill six in Tucson and Ft. Hood killer Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan kill 13; both men were only stopped when they had to reload.

I know the president is locked in a tight race with a country that's practically split down the middle. But this is how societies crumble: when politicians can't even manage to tackle obvious problems, with solutions that vast majorities agree on. Although it's becoming conventional wisdom that Americans have grown less supportive of gun control, renewing the assault weapons ban is supported by 62 percent of American voters, including 61 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans, according to a June 2011 Time magazine poll (h/t Media Matters).

Although the results aren't as deadly, we're stuck at a similar impasse when it comes to taxes. Vast majorities of American voters support increasing taxes on the wealthy – whether that's defined at the $250K where Obama would rescind the Bush tax cuts or the $1 million level that's more popular with conservative Democrats. Yet the NRA and Grover Norquist have made even popular measures to solve tough problems -- halfway measures, for sure, but something -- politically impossible. That's corrosive. Little by little, such impasses erode our faith in self-government, and in one another.

And I'm part of the problem. I didn't bring myself to write about Aurora over the weekend partly because I was busy, but also: I don't really believe anything can be done about it. I didn't expect Obama to mention the assault weapons ban in his speech. But there is no excuse for a civilian to have that kind of weaponry, period. None. And if the president can't say that, we're really in trouble. To those insisting he can't do anything to change the political climate on guns, I'd just point to the way opinions on gay marriage have continued to shift in the wake of his coming out in favor of it. Leaders have to lead.

In the meantime, the president's speechwriters should keep his tepid gun-massacre consolation speech handy and update it regularly, with scriptural references and stories of courage and endurance. Mitt Romney's folks should keep their candidate's boilerplate fresh, too. They will almost certainly need to use it again.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aurora Shooting Barack Obama Gun Control James Holmes