Mourner-in-Chief no more: After Oregon, Obama's angry, frustrated and insisting voters demand gun reform

Looking back at the many speeches Obama has had to make on this subject reveals a president ground down

By Scott Timberg
Published October 2, 2015 4:49PM (EDT)
  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

President Obama was elected in part because of his promise to bring Americans together, to show us that we are not a nation of blue states and red states, but of a single United States. His instinct toward consensus has served him well in some cases, and paralyzed him in others. He’s taken a firmer tone on a handful of issues over the last few years, and his stark response to the Oregon school shooting shows how much more assertive – and frustrated – he’s become on handgun violence in the last few years.

Instead of serving as mourner-in-chief, and intoning solemnly about the tragedy, Obama spoke Thursday in concrete terms about his own sense of helplessness and the urgency of the nation ending this epidemic.

This New York Times video cut shows several of Obama's speeches after mass shootings, from the beginning of his presidency to the present. The video illustrates the bleak evolution of his treatment of these crimes — here is a president who's grown angrier and less patient with the problem. It’s not that he didn’t take these crises seriously early in his presidency. But he spoke more generally after the Ft. Hood shooting of 2009, after Tuscon in 2011 and Aurora, Colo., in 2012: he described these as a “tragic shooting,” a “tragedy,” “senseless,” and so on. He could have been speaking about deaths due to flood or fire.

But he seems now both wearied and toughened by the steady growth of gun violence. What he said last night -- “If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views” – is inconceivable from the first years of his presidency.

Thursday night’s despairing speech built on a turn that seemed to come over Obama after the shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., in 2012 – when he pushed, in vain, for tighter restrictions -- and especially the Charleston slaughter of earlier this year.

Last night, Obama expressed helplessness about his own role but called the American people to make a change. From the New York Times report:

“So tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate,” the president said in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, named for a man severely wounded by a would-be assassin’s bullet, “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”

His anguish was cut at times with a confrontational streak. While he never named the National Rifle Association – which has helped defeat politicians who’ve moved to curtail the free flow of guns – he referred to “the organization that suggests it is speaking for” responsible gun owners.

He even went so far as to say “we should politicize” the frequency of American mass shootings. "This is a political choice that we make, to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones." (For this he has already been assailed by Mike Huckabee for “his liberal, anti-gun agenda.”)

Obama also called for the nation’s media to document deaths from firearms against deaths from terrorism. Vox put together a chart Thursday night that shows the results of this in bleak and simple terms: While U.S. deaths from terrorism have been near zero since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gun violence has killed more than 10,000 Americans every year, some years, killing more than 12,000. The site quotes another crucial passage in his speech that demonstrates how far he’s come: "We spent over a trillion dollars, and passed countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?"

No president has ever had to address the public so many times on the toll of gun violence. Nor has the leader of any other nation. It’s frightening to note, as the Washington Post just did, that we now experience more than one of these a day: Thursday marked 274 days into the year, and by then we’d seen 294 mass shootings (which the Post defines as “incidents where four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire.”)

Presidents, as Obama noted last night, don’t have an endless supply of power, and on some issues, especially with a hostile Congress, their ability to shift policy is minimal. But a president has a bully pulpit, and Obama’s frustration with the predictable nature of American gun violence has pushed him to use it more assertively. Sadly, he is likely to have to give more of these speeches before he leaves office.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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