Barack Obama’s emotional evolution on gun control

Barack Obama’s emotional evolution on gun control

Overview

 

Washington (CNN)The Mr. Cool in the Oval Office rarely shows emotion.

But on one issue — guns — President Barack Obama lets the public mask slip, revealing the ire boiling within.

Before the cameras, moved by the massacres of innocents that have punctuated his presidency, Obama has wept, his voice has cracked, he’s visibly shaken with frustration, he’s lashed out at lawmakers he sees as cowards and even led a congregation in “Amazing Grace.”

On Tuesday, as he faced a room filled with parents and relatives of victims of gun violence, he stopped speaking, grew silent and wiped away the tears that began to fall when he recalled the first graders killed in a Connecticut elementary school three years ago.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House.

At times, the President has questioned the nation he leads, asking why no other advanced country seems so blighted with regular killing sprees and wondering aloud why Americans will not choose to stop the bloodshed.

Evolving through a cycle of sadness, poleaxing grief, frustration and outright fury, Obama has even offered hints of self-recrimination at his own earlier failure to touch the perfidious politics of gun control himself.

How Obama responds to shooting attacks

How Obama responds to shooting attacks 02:37

But so far, all the emoting, anger and frustration have added up to little. Despite an expansive flexing of his executive powers, Obama, hampered by a Republican Congress and wary Democrats, has failed to significantly tighten gun control laws.

Now, following a new clutch of killings in places like Oregon, South Carolina and California last year, Obama’s public evolution on gun control may be complete. Instead of talking, he’s acting. At the White House, he unveiled a series of executive actions on guns, including expanding mandatory background checks for some private sales.

“We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency. It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close,” Obama said. “Somehow we become numb to it and we start to feel that this is normal. And instead of thinking about how to solve the problem, this has become one of our most polarized, partisan debates, despite the fact that there’s a general consensus in America about what needs to be done.”

He added, “We do have to feel a sense of urgency about it. In Dr. King’s words, we need to feel the fierce urgency of now — because people are dying.”

Read: Obama rolls out new executive actions on gun control

He will also press for public support on the issue at a live town hall meeting hosted by CNN on Thursday night — making gun violence a priority of his final year in office, days before his valedictory State of the Union address.

Obama insisted Tuesday that he merely wants to enact a few common-sense gun safety measures. But the gun lobby is mobilizing and Republicans, led by 2016 front-runner Donald Trump, insist Obama is out to make it impossible for people to buy guns.

From the campaign trail to Tucson to Aurora

Obama’s often demoralizing and politically radioactive experience with the politics of gun control started when he first set eyes on the White House and have confounded him ever since.

He got off on the wrong foot with Second Amendment advocates with an offhand remark during his 2008 campaign, when he said people in Midwest communities hit hard by economic blight “cling to guns or religion.”

That seemed to many critics as disdainful of lawful firearms owners themselves, a slip his foes have used again and again to warn the president is coming to get their guns.

Obama also appeared to underestimate the potency of the gun lobby and National Rifle Association back then as well.

“What we have to do is get beyond the politics of this issue,” Obama he said at a 2008 Democratic debate in Philadelphia.

Read: Will Obama’s gun control moves face a legal challenge?

But when he took office, gun control seemed far from his mind. With a financial crisis raging, and other priorities like health care reform demanding political capital, Obama was absent on the issue while Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

And to be fair, there were few Democrats — especially those in red states — who would have welcomed tough votes on gun control.

But the President was forced to confront the consequences of gun violence before the eyes of the nation after shooting sprees at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, and in a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket parking lot that left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with brain damage and six people dead in January 2011.

But he used the tragedy, not to make the kind of outspoken call for gun control that would become familiar in later years but to call on Americans to cleanse their poisoned politics.

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully,” he said.

In the months to come, Obama would be called upon to react to more shootings, including one at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in which six people died and a massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 were killed.

But the emotional strain was clearly beginning to take a toll as he wondered after Aurora how he would feel if his daughters had been caught at the scene.

Read: Obama’s gun reforms rely on funding from Congress