President Obama's Hard Rhetorical Shift on Gun Control

The president broke with precedent on Thursday, linking the Charleston shooting to the ready availability of guns.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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.

Both sets of the president’s remarks about the Aurora shooting, which took place in the summer of 2012, were particularly anodyne. Compare the president’s remarks as events in Charleston unfolded with this chestnut on the stump on the day of the shooting: “And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious.”

In the hours after the 2012 Newtown massacre, President Obama addressed the nation from a room in the White House named for James Brady, one of the four men shot during John Hinckley’s attempt on life on Ronald Reagan. The president’s speech was more memorable for the image of him wiping away tears than it was for any clarion calls for gun reform. Here’s the speech’s most assertive section:

As a country, we have been through this too many times.  Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago—these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.  And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

As with the Isla Vista shooting, the president’s more pointed words came two days later at a memorial service in Newtown during which he said, with some exasperation, “We can’t accept events like this as routine.” He added, “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

The answer, as Wednesday night proved, turned out to be “yes.” And while some have pushed back against the idea that the gun proposals proffered by the White House and the Democrats would have prevented what happened in Charleston, killings like these have become appallingly routine. That might be what pushed the president to break with his own routine.