U.S. Presidents & The Politics of Gun Violence
Obama set apart from predecessors with inclusive gun violence rhetoric
It’s not clear that any recent U.S. president has ever strayed too far from the political middle on gun control – between “clingy” enthusiasts and terrified families of violence victims.
As President Barack Obama put it during his speech to the National Urban League conference in New Orleans last week, “Steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress. This has been true for some time -- particularly when it touches on the issues of guns.”
That acknowledgement of the politics of gun control, and failed efforts to significantly reduce gun violence in America, has been uttered by many-a-politician. But that same speech, in which the president shined a spotlight on the persistence of gun violence in urban communities -- even as the nation grieved for the victims of the mass shooting in a Colorado suburb the week before -- was different, and it may have set him apart from his predecessors.
When presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush respectively addressed the nation post-Columbine and post-Virginia Tech, either from the White House or at memorials for victims, they made little mention of how gun violence had generally taken the lives of urban youths, seemingly unabated, and long enough for it to be considered a matter of public health.
Obama, by comparison, gave poignant context to the issue of gun violence, albeit before a largely African American audience, in what was once one of America’s most dangerous cities.
Advocates say any president’s job is to set violence-reducing policies in place, even if passage is politically improbable. They also caution against a strictly law enforcement approach to the problem, as has been promoted by federal and state officials in the past.
Tio Hardiman, director of Chicago-based “CeaseFire Illinois,” said Obama’s comments at the National Urban League conference are a strong indication he understands the battles anti-violence advocates fight every day.
“It’s definitely on his radar to a certain degree,” said Hardiman, who is personally familiar with the president from his days as an Illinois senator.
If presidents and other political leaders began addressing gun violence as a public health issue, Hardiman feels, "It would be a game changer."
Comparing violence to an infectious disease, Hardiman believes the nation's mentality would change around this issue if the public policy response to violence mimicked the kinds of campaigns that sprung up around the anti-HIV movement.
CeaseFire is a proven model for homicide reduction in communities where gun violence feels like an inevitable part of life. In 2004, Chicago homicides dropped by 25 percent, to a total of 448 homicides, or a rate of 15.5 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to a CeaseFire report.
Recent reports of violence, however, betray that success. Chicago homicides are up at least 38 percent this year. In June, the city had seen at least 66 more homicides over this time last year, as reported by the New York Times.
Malik Yusef, a Chicago musician and actor, who has worked with hometown rappers Common and Kanye West, says violence should be seen as a reaction to the conditions of those who engage in it.
“It’s human nature to engage in violence,” Yusef said in a recent phone interview. “When you’re hurt, you hurt people.”
Dismissing the young people who commit violence as less than human can ensure they won’t get the help that they, in some respects, are crying out for, he added.
“These people have post traumatic stress disorder,” Yusef said, insisting that, “Nobody ever tried to heal them.”
As presidents make televised attempts to heal the nation -- as happened after the attempted assassination of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Columbine shootings -- their messages fall short of condemning more than just “senseless” mass shootings, which occur less frequently than urban homicide.
Below, review the speeches delivered by the last three presidents after mass shootings. Also, find links to brief summaries of the presidents’ records on gun control.
PRESIDENT OBAMA after the Arizona shooting:
President Obama speaking at the Arizona shooting memorial (YouTube)
Barack Obama on gun control, OnTheIssues.org.
PRESIDENT BUSH after the Virginia Tech shooting:
President Bush speaking at the Virginia Tech memorial (YouTube)
Text of President Bush's remarks at the memorial (DakotaVoice.com)
George W. Bush on gun control, OnTheIssues.org.
PRESIDENT CLINTON after the Columbine shooting:
President Clinton speaking at a Columbine High School memorial (YouTube)
Text of President Clinton remarks (FlaglerLive.com)
Bill Clinton on gun control, OnTheIssues.org.