Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Common Ground, Common Sense in the Land of Guns

What was the significance of President Obama's executive actions on gun safety?  The actions themselves are described in this Washington Post story, and the President summarizes them in the speech embedded above.  But apart from the modest changes possible under current law, it was the speech itself, what it said and how the President said it, that was the most significant.

"Emotional" is the word used most in stories--at CNN, in the Post story, in a valuable WaPost annotated transcript of the speech, in John Cassidy's New Yorker piece.  It's emotion based on urgency and backed by overwhelming reason and evidence. The balancing of rights, the safety measures used for cell phones and aspirin bottles but forbidden for guns, so much of it simple social sanity.  It's so obvious that it's satiric, as in the Borowitz headline: Obama Continues to Stubbornly Link Gun Violence with Guns.

 Cassidy describes the rhythms of the speech, including the tears.  His last paragraphs make the salient point:

The denunciation of the N.R.A., which went unnamed in this part of the speech, seemed to rouse the President and get him back on track for the climax of his speech. The best way to defeat the gun lobby, he insisted, was at the polls. “And, yes, it will be hard and it won’t happen overnight,” he said. “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. L.G.B.T. rights, that was decades’ worth of work. So, just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try.”

Obama was only being realistic about the prospects for further progress. He was also serving notice for those who agree with him. In addition to shedding tears of despair, they will need to shed some tears of defiance."

President Obama seems intent on keeping this issue in public consciousness.  It's likely he'll continue this mission after he leaves office.  The politics of this is similar to climate crisis--follow the money.  The gun lobby--which has gotten more extreme over the years-- has bought the Republican party, and the extremism is self-reinforcing, back and forth.  (What would happen, I wonder, if the gun lobby and the fossil fuel billionaires were on different sides of an issue?  The GOP might implode.)

So politically it's up to 2016 candidates and those who follow.  It may be that incremental judgments at the polls encourage this issue to break into agreement at least on background checks (which are supported by 90% of Americans) or it may implode with other extreme positions when today's GOP implodes.  That could happen any time, soon or not soon at all.  But either way, we'll need to share and maintain that emotional defiance.

It is perhaps clearer on this issue than some others what the fundamental commitment of Barack Obama has always been: to make the case that summons agreement and common ground, but on fundamental matters of importance.  Again, the Borowitz satire makes the point.  In a list of barely imaginary quotes from Republican candidates accusing President Obama of being deluded in linking gun violence to guns: "The former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O. Carly Fiorina said that Obama’s persistent linking of gun violence with guns was “sad but not surprising, from a man who believes that people’s health can be improved by access to health care.”

 And like the Civil Rights movement that is his touchstone, addressing gun violence requires persistence and hope, which is not just an emotion of the moment but itself a commitment.  Maybe we can't get it done right away.  "So just because it's hard, that's no excuse not to try."  Because, eventually, yes--we can.

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