I had just slightly too many thoughts on President Obama’s remarks today on reducing gun violence to fit into a Facebook post. The short version: if you have the time, you should watch the full video below, not just the clip shows that are already circulating social media.
It seems like most people are focusing on Obama’s emotional moment near the end of the speech, which is great. It’s a hugely powerful moment. As the Daily Show, among others, has recently pointed out, Obama is tired of giving this speech.
And, you know, we’re tired of hearing it. The other day I was talking to my roommate and wanted to make a point using the #notallmen/#yesallwomen campaigns and found myself saying “When — that shooting, you know the one, in California, not San Bernadino . . .” For Pete’s sake, I blogged about the UC Santa Barbara shooting and its cultural aftermath, and yet it had run together in my head with the mass shooting that came after. And the one that came after that. And the one that came after that. Mass shootings and gun violence have become so commonplace in my lifetime that I treat them the way you treat James Bond movies. “Uh, you know, it was the one with the guy.”
Anyway. This is really just to say how wonderful I find this speech of President Obama’s, viewing it as a writer and a theatre person, because it’s really a remarkable piece of writing and rhetoric. Obama starts by talking about Rep. Gabby Giffords. As he lists the names of communities that have suffered mass shootings during his time in office, audience members interject: “Too many. Too many. Too many.”
And then Obama turns around and lightens the mood with an anecdote about Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, and his brother on the ISS, and he ends with, like, a dad joke, and it’s this moment of warmth and levity that I think is both totally genuine and a brilliant dramatic move. In fact, throughout this half-hour speech, there are moments where Obama smiles and invites the audience to smile with him. He points out, a little snarkily, “I taught constitutional law, I know a little about this.” He jokes about misplacing his iPad, “which happens to me often the older I get.”
That said, he’s pretty blunt. He’s blunt about the horrors of gun violence, he’s blunt about the many facets that make up the situation, including mental health care, and he’s blunt about the political reality of Congress stonewalling gun reform. There are some rhetorical flourishes here and there — and most of those are in the clip shows you’ve probably already seen, because they come near the end of the speech, so I won’t quote them — but most of the speech is straightforward. The reforms he’s putting in motion are, he points out, “pretty common-sense stuff,” and the speech reflects that. It is plain speaking for a plain problem. Here’s my favorite part:
I mean, some of this is just simple math. Yes, the gun lobby is loud and it is organized in defense of making it effortless for guns to be available for anybody, any time. Well, you know what, the rest of us, we all have to be just as passionate. We have to be just as organized in defense of our kids. This is not that complicated. The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections. And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you. (Applause.)
And, yes, it will be hard, and it won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen during this Congress. It won’t happen during my presidency. But a lot of things don’t happen overnight. A woman’s right to vote didn’t happen overnight. The liberation of African Americans didn’t happen overnight. LGBT rights — that was decades’ worth of work. So just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try.
This is not that complicated. It’s not that complicated. After San Bernadino — or, wait, maybe it was after the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, I legitimately can’t remember now — I saw friends of friends on Facebook saying, well, what people tend to say after these things: that it isn’t as simple as restricting access to guns because crazy people will kill people no matter what and it’s our culture of violence that’s the problem so putting any restrictions on access to guns won’t make a difference. And besides wanting to point out that the Mad Max franchise in all its guns-cars-explosions glory comes from a country that instituted broad gun bans and saw a correlative drop in gun-related homicides and suicides, so a cultural love of gratuitous violence is clearly not the deciding variable . . .
. . . I wanted to yell and scream about how it is, like, A LOT HARDER to kill or injure a lot of people really fast if you don’t have a gun. Yes, our culture plays into it. Yes, the lousy state of mental health care in this country plays into it. And we should talk about those issues and deal with those issues but in the meantime can’t we also do the simplest thing which is remove the gun from the equation? And then we can talk about how to handle the white guy with an axe to grind against black people/women/abortion providers/the government/his classmates, and the culture that taught him that the best thing to do with his anger and disillusionment and pain was to take it out on others.
It’s not that complicated, President Obama pointed out today. But it does require action.
So alongside my anger that things ever got as bad as they have, today I mostly feel a determined pleasure at hearing about the concrete steps that are being taken. I feel pride that I voted for Obama twice. I feel a little sad that he’ll be leaving office so soon, but I feel a great satisfaction in seeing him use his remaining time in office like this. I feel a little hope.
I hope 2016 is going to be a hell of a year in the White House.
(ETA 7:59PM: GLARING TYPO in the title, whoops.)