The sociopathic killings in Oregon on October 1 spurred another round of chaotic and frenzied comment. The dialogue began with the president, whose comments on the shootings came out fast, faster than news of the shooting itself. Whereas some might see the increase in mass gun murders in the US as a cultural, even media-driven, problem, the president understandably sees the Oregon massacre and others like it as having political roots. In his brief somber statement that day, President Obama argued that this form of criminality has grown out of political choices that ordinary Americans have made. Make different choices, and sociopathic rampages involving firearms will begin to wane. Most strikingly, the president appealed to the public for relief from a stale, inconclusive dialogue about gun violence that has become terrifyingly routine.
President Obama’s remarks are worth reading in their entirety. They are notable for what they did and did not say. The president did not call on Americans to back any specific gun-control measure. Instead, he made three general appeals.
1. GET OUT THE FACTS ON GUN-RELATED DEATHS. The president appealed to the journalistic world to assemble and publish comprehensive data about gun-related deaths in the US. It’s odd, but authoritative statistics about gun trafficking, gun sales, gun violence, and gun crimes are surprisingly hard to come by. Several years ago Congress barred the Obama administration from studying this problem or amassing authoritative statistics on public’s behalf. So, most of the available data is very old, incomplete, or statistically flawed. Instead, the job of monitoring the extent and nature of gun violence has fallen to a ragtag assemblage of voluntary efforts throughout the country, such as Slate’s effort in the year after Newtown, or the real-time reporting on gun violence that the good people at the Gun Violence Archive carry on. Accurate information about gun violence and its social costs could reshape the gun debate by silencing false claims and focusing public attention around effective policy aims.
2. RESPONSIBLE GUN-OWNERS ARE A KEY GROUP IN THE STRUGGLE TO PROMOTE GUN SAFETY. The millions of Americans who own guns are perhaps the only constituency capable of checking the influence of the National Rifle Association. The heinous mass murder of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School in December 2012 effected an attitudinal shift, galvanizing responsible gun-owners in favor of stricter gun laws. Surveys show that 90 percent of gun owners now favor ‘common-sense’ gun-safety measures, a stance at odds with the unbounded pro-gun rhetoric of the NRA. In his message, President Obama appealed directly to gun owners, asking them ‘to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.’ Gun-owners are uniquely positioned to speak out in support of prudent public-safety measures that do not impinge upon Second Amendment rights.
3. VOTERS MUST MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY: Though many Americans favor tougher gun laws, they do not view this as a key issue when voting. As a consequence, the gun lobby and pro-gun advocates routinely get their way in Congress and state legislatures. The president urged voters to care more, and to pay more attention to candidates’ voting records (an issue that has lately vexed Bernie Sanders). Without legislators willing to vote for gun-control measures, the political struggle to inhibit the reckless use of firearms will go nowhere.
The president’s conviction that the will of the people can transform the gun debate is characteristic of an executive who has taken to heart his role as ‘the people’s sovereign.’ Time and again, the president has placed his faith in a democratic public to generate the “change we can believe in.” Whether Americans have the determination and wherewithal to fight for a safer civil society remains to be seen.