A presidential statement on a mass shooting might have once seemed like a major moment. Now, it’s just another rote step in a numb ritual of response to mass shootings. Time and again, President Obama has stepped to a lectern to deliver a string of increasingly frustrated statements about gun violence in America.
Obama hasn’t yet made a statement from the White House, but he was sitting for an interview with CBS shortly after being briefed on the shooting, as details were still emerging, and told Norah O’Donnell this:
The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world, and there's some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don't happen as frequently, commonsense gun-safety laws, stronger background checks and you know, for those who are concerned about terrorism of, you know, some may be aware of the fact that we have a no fly list where people can't get on planes but those same people who we don't allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm and there's nothing that we can do to stop them…. We should never think that this is something that just happens in the ordinary course of events, because it doesn't happen with the same frequency in other countries.
The president previously made news with a furious statement at the start of October after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, when he said, “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.” Those comments were in line with a rhetorical shift that Adam Chandler noted in July, in which Obama has begun speaking more specifically about the easy availability of guns to those who would do harm.
The one thing that seems to unite the president’s recent statements on mass shootings is his consistent focus on the uniqueness of American gun violence, paired with an angry resignation. “There is always an odd accusatory tone to POTUS comments like this,” the writer and Republican strategist Stuart Stevens said on Twitter. “As if he were social critic not nation’s leader.”
Stevens isn’t wrong. Obama conveys a sense of despair. He is a man who has pushed hard for stricter gun laws. Despite overwhelming public support for some of the measures he has proposed, he has achieved nothing legislatively, and has likely exhausted the measures he can effect using executive power. The reasons for those failures are complicated, ranging from his own broken trust with conservatives to the political power of the National Rifle Association. Setting all that aside, it is all but impossible to imagine Obama achieving any political victories on gun control between now and the end of his term in office. That leaves him with few tools to address these crises. The megaphone of the presidency is probably his most powerful remaining tool, and the one he has favored.
In his comments, he has developed a consistent critique of gun violence in the United States as a singular, unique phenomenon. The president holds a mirror up to triumphal notions of American exceptionalism, and finds the nation exceptional in grotesque ways. Hence Obama’s statement on Wednesday that “we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
On Saturday, following the shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he said, “This is not normal. We can’t let it become normal if we truly care about this ... then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them. Period. Enough is enough.”
Before that was Umpqua, when in addition to his “political choice we make” comment, Obama elaborated:
Earlier this year, I answered a question in an interview by saying, “The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws—even in the face of repeated mass killings.” And later that day, there was a mass shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. That day! Somehow this has become routine ... We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings.
Here is Obama after the massacre at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina:
At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.
Here’s Obama in an interview shortly after Elliot Rodger killed six in Isla Vista, California:
My biggest frustration [as president], so far, is the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens, and it happens now once a week. And it’s a one day story. There’s no place like this.
Here he is in September 2013, following the shootings in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.—presaging his “political choice” comments:
No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence—none. Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is 10 times what it is in other developed nations. And there is nothing inevitable about it. It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make.
As clear as Obama’s anger is—the tone of his Umpqua reaction, in particular, surprised even jaded observers for its heat—his resignation is perhaps even clearer. It is a recognition that as singular as the phenomenon of American mass shootings may be, the realities of the political system bind him.
“Each time this happens I am going to say that we can actually do something about it, but we’re going to have to change our laws,” he said after Umpqua. “And this is not something I can do by myself. 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.”
Obama has kept his promise to keep saying so. Two months later, there’s no reason for the public to think he’s any closer to having a Congress willing to work with him, no reason to believe that will change, and no reason to believe Obama has any hope it will change.