Obama on gun violence: six years of statements but change remains elusive


The mass shootings in South Carolina are the latest in a long line national tragedies as legislative efforts toward gun law reform continue to fail

Erin McCann in New York

More than a dozen times in his presidency, Barack Obama has appeared before television cameras and issued statements to express sorrow at a mass shooting event in America.

After Arizona, where congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, he spoke of hope. After Newtown, where 20 children and six teachers were shot dead in their classrooms, he spoke of a nation’s broken heart. On Thursday, after nine people were shot dead in a church in Charleston, he spoke of despair.

There are other shootings where Obama has remained silent, or not engaged with issue of guns or the cause of an event. But when he has, the president’s responses have varied from anger to exasperation to sadness, nearly every time vowing that such events must not happen again.

During his presidency, most legislative efforts to reform America’s gun laws through universal background checks or restrictions on sales and magazines have failed.

On 3 April 2009, barely two months after Obama was sworn in, 13 people were killed and four wounded at a cultural center in Binghamton, New York.

Obama’s response was brief, and made no mention of gun violence. It was later revealed the shooter fired 98 shots from two handguns in less than a minute:

Michelle and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn about the act of senseless violence in Binghamton, NY, today. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families and the people of Binghamton.

On 10 June 2009, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier killed a guard at the US holocaust memorial museum:

This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against antisemitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honor those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world.

On 5 November 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 31 more on the Fort Hood army base in Texas. Obama focused on the heroism of the soldiers killed on base:

We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes.

We’re a nation that guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses. And instead of claiming God for our side, we remember Lincoln’s words, and always pray to be on the side of God.

We’re a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.

On 12 January 2011, at a memorial service for the six people killed by Jared Lee Loughner at an event for congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system …

We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future. But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do.

As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together …

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate – as it should – let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.

On 20 July 2012, James Holmes opened fire during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12. Obama was campaigning for re-election in Florida at the time, and kept his speech sober and focused on the victims:

Now, even as we learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living

Two days later, after visiting the Colorado hospital where victims were recovering, he touched vaguely on change:

And I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country, but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth.

On 5 August 2012, after a gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin:

If it turns out, as some early reports indicate, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple.

I think the American people immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes, and I think it will be very important for us to reaffirm once again that, in this country, regardless of what we look like, where we come from, who we worship, we are all one people, and we look after one another and we respect one another

On 12 December 2012, hours after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six teachers at the Newtown elementary school:

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.

This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now. In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans. And I will do everything in my power as president to help.

On 4 February 2013, in Minneapolis, amid efforts to pass a package of gun-ownership reforms

Now, changing the status quo is never easy. This will be no exception. The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it’s important. If you decide it’s important. If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, hunters and sportsmen, Americans of every background stand up and say this time it’s got to be different – we’ve suffered too much pain to stand by and do nothing.

On 28 March 2013, as Congress prepared to vote on reforms:

As I said when I visited Newtown just over three months ago, if there is a step we can take that will save just one child, just one parent, just another town from experiencing the same grief that some of the moms and dads who are here have endured, then we should be doing it. We have an obligation to try.

There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get this done. But the reason we’re talking about here today is because it’s not done until it’s done. And there are some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all. They’re doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration, or their assumption is that people will just forget about it …

Tears aren’t enough. Expressions of sympathy aren’t enough. Speeches aren’t enough. We’ve cried enough. We’ve known enough heartbreak. What we’re proposing is not radical, it’s not taking away anybody’s gun rights. It’s something that if we are serious, we will do.

On 16 September 2013, after a lone gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, Obama spoke forcefully against the creeping normalcy of mass shootings in America:

As president, I have now grieved with five American communities ripped apart by mass violence. Fort Hood. Tucson. Aurora. Sandy Hook. And now, the Washington Navy Yard. And these mass shootings occur against a backdrop of daily tragedies, as an epidemic of gun violence tears apart communities across America – from the streets of Chicago to neighborhoods not far from here.

And so, once again, we remember our fellow Americans who were just going about their day doing their jobs, doing what they loved …

In the United Kingdom, in Australia, when just a single mass shooting occurred in those countries, they understood that there was nothing ordinary about this kind of carnage. They endured great heartbreak, but they also mobilized and they changed, and mass shootings became a great rarity.

And yet, here in the United States, after the round-of-clock coverage on cable news, after the heartbreaking interviews with families, after all the speeches and all the punditry and all the commentary, nothing happens …

No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence – none.

On 2 April 2014, after a second shooting at Fort Hood, in which a soldier killed himself and three others, wounding 14 more:

We are going to do everything we can to make sure that the community at Fort Hood has what it needs to deal with the current situation, but also any potential aftermath.

We’re heartbroken that something like this might have happened again.

On 13 February 2015, after three Muslim students were killed by a neighbor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.

On Thursday, after nine people were killed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church:

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. And it is in our power to do something about it.

I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.


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