In the days following the 2011 Tucson shooting, in which six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed and Representative Gabby Giffords was severely injured, President Obama flew to Arizona to address the attack.
“For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” the president said. “None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”
The speech, which took place four days after the shooting, is regarded as one of the best of his presidency for its palliative force. For its dearth of overly political claims, it also earned the president an on-air high-five from Charles Krauthammer and praise from Newt Gingrich and Senator John McCain.
On Thursday, the president addressed the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. church just hours after the tragedy unfolded and moments after the suspect had been apprehended. Like the Tucson speech, there was “heartache” and there was “sadness.” But there was also “anger.”
In displaying anger, President Obama deviated from a precedent set in over six years of delivering speeches about mass shootings and gun violence. This time, there was the same rhetorical splay of uncertainties, but with an entirely different conclusion:
We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.
There are plenty of potential reasons for the shift. At the time of the Tucson speech, the president was 22 months shy of reelection and his approval ratings were among the lowest for a president entering his second year of office since Eisenhower. There’s also a shrewd political calculation in initially letting a horrible moment speak for itself. The circumstances of the Tucson shooting and the motives of its perpetrator, Jared Lee Loughner, differ from what we currently know of the suspect in the Charleston shooting. And between Tucson and Charleston came shootings in Aurora, Oak Creek, Isla Vista, and Newtown.