President Obama’s initial responses to mass shootings have become increasingly focused on guns over the years. In the beginning, it was heavy on the standard thoughts and prayers, promises of justice, etc. But eventually, a new tone crept in. An exasperated Obama last year encouraged people to “politicize” the tragedies in the name of passing new gun laws and preventing future mass shootings.
On Friday, Obama wasted no time going right to the gun issue.
In his statement in the early hours of Friday morning, American time (Obama is in Europe), as we were in the process of learning that five officers had been killed and six others shot by snipers in Dallas, Obama served notice that this is a tragedy and the perpetrators will be brought to justice — but also that it was also a gun-related tragedy that requires action on that front.
“We also know when people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately, it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic,” he said. “In the days ahead, we will have to consider those realities as well. In the meantime, today, our focus is on the victims and their families.”
Obama’s comment on guns was more an addendum than the focal point of his remarks. It also laid down a marker.
It echoed the way he handled the gun issue after the deadliest mass shooting in American history last month in Orlando.
“The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle,” Obama said in his first comments on the shooting. “This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Obama’s approach to the issue was a little more oblique following the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. In that case, Obama referred to lawmakers doing something about preventing such tragedies, but didn’t explicitly point to guns.
The real turning point in Obama’s rhetoric appeared to come two months prior, after another mass shooting in Oregon. In that case, he made no bones about asking that the tragedy be “politicized.”
“And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue,” he said at the time. “Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.
“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 because of our inaction.”
And that line highlights Obama’s challenge in these situations: He clearly sees these tragedies as partially due to American gun culture, and thinks the appropriate response is to do something about that.
At the same time, taking a political stand just hours after Americans have been killed is the sort of action that leaves any politician exposed (which is why relatively few do it, preferring to stick to a safe zone filled with thoughts and prayers.) will lead to charges of politicization and inflame passions. People who don’t think new gun laws are the answer to a tragedy like this — about half the population, according to some polls — will see Obama using the tragedy to do something they disagree with. Many of those same people will see Obama skirting the real issues — whether radical Islam, mental health or something else — especially if he neglects to also mention them in his remarks.
And that’s definitely the case in Dallas, where the victims are police officers. That unwraps a whole series of other political issues that are sure to inflame passions over race and police. In citing guns first, Obama risks looking more like a politician than a president — a politician cherry-picking his favorite causes.
But he’s grown increasingly comfortable with that. Here’s why: One of the main factors working against gun control efforts in recent years has been time. It wasn’t until months after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 that Congress actually voted on what was supposed to be a big bipartisan background checks bill. It failed.
That’s why Democrats sought to force the issue immediately after Orlando last month, trying to win converts to their gun measures with the tragedy still fresh in Americans’ minds. They filibustered in the Senate and held a sit-in in the House.
It didn’t work — and it may not matter, given our polarized gun debate — but it was clear recognition that they aim to get to the point on guns more quickly going forward.
That’s the backdrop against which Obama chooses his words in response to a tragedy like Dallas. And over his seven-plus years as president, he has clearly grown less worried about being accused of “politicizing” things.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Aaron Blake