Americans have heard President Obama speak about gun violence many times, often in the wake of a mass shooting, occasionally to make appeals to Congress to be more responsible, and sometimes both.
But today’s remarks at the White House were less of an appeal for action and more of a defense of action, since the president is taking a series of executive actions this week that require nothing from a Republican-led Congress that opposes any and all efforts to reform gun laws.
The result was a powerful, and at times emotional, presidential pitch. The Atlantic’s James Fallows, himself a presidential speechwriter nearly 40 years ago, wrote this afternoon, “I think the presentation as a whole – talking about law, balances of rights, the art of the possible, the long process of political change – will be one of the moments that is remembered and studied from Obama’s time in office.”
It’s worth appreciating what made this morning’s remarks so striking.
The full video of the speech is above, but a few portions stood out. According to the rough transcript, Obama took some time to state the obvious about constitutional law.
“I believe in the Second Amendment. It is there, written on the paper, it guarantees a right to bear arms. No matter how many times people try to change my words around, I taught constitutional law, I know a little bit about this. I get it.“But I also believe we can find ways to reduce gun violence consistent with the Second Amendment. I mean, think about it – we all believe in the First Amendment, the guarantee of free speech. But we accept that you cannot yell ‘fire’ in a theater. We understand there are some constraints on our freedom in order to protect innocent people.“We cherish our right to privacy, but we accept that you have to go through metal detectors before being allowed to board a plane. It’s not because people like doing that, but we understand that is part of the price of living in a civilized society. And what’s often ignored in this debate is that the majority of gun owners actually agree – a majority of gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, lawbreaking feud from inflicting harm on a massive scale. […]“Contrary to the claims of what some gun rights’ proponents have suggested, this has not been the first step in some slippery slope to mass confiscation. Contrary to claims of some presidential candidates, apparently before this meeting, this is not a plot to take away everybody’s guns. You pass a background check, you purchase a firearm.”
On the political polarization:
“How did this become such a partisan issue? Republican President George W. Bush once said, ‘I believe in background checks at gun shows or anywhere to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.’ Senator John McCain introduced a bipartisan measure to address the gun show loophole, saying, ‘We need this amendment because criminals and terrorists have exploited and are exploiting this very obvious loophole in our gun safety laws.’“Even the NRA used to support expanded background checks. And by the way, most of its members still do. Most Republican voters still do. How did we get here? How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns? […]“As Ronald Reagan once said, ‘If mandatory background checks could save more lives, it would be well worth making it the law of the land.’ The bill before Congress three years ago met that test. Unfortunately too many senators failed theirs.”
“So, all of us need to demand that Congress be brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies. All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors, and legislators and businesses do their part to make our communities safer.“We need the wide majority of responsible gun owners, who grieve with us every time this happens and feel like your views are not being properly represented, to join with us to demand something better.“And we need voters who want safer gun laws, and who are disappointed in leaders who stand in their way to remember come election time.”
As for the moment when tears were visible on the president’s face, Obama was reflecting on the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” he said. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”