But just five days into the last full year of his Presidency, Barack Obama had one more moment to add to those. And this might be his most important to date.
On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 5, President Obama addressed the nation to once again talk about the need to curb gun violence and push for greater efforts on gun control. Tuesday’s address was intended to be a formal announcement of The President issuing an Executive Order in favor of gun control and a more stringent process — including better background checks — in order for Americans to have access to firearms.
Gun control is not a new issue for President Obama. The President has called for it plenty of times in the past, most often following an incident of a mass shooting or a national tragedy.
What was different about this past Tuesday was the way in which Obama addressed the issue. Not just because he was taking executive action on his own, but because everything in the President’s speech, from his words to his stature to his gestures, suggested that he was sick of their sh*t and that he’d reached a breaking point.
Obama began his address by acknowledging his critics. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s speech, plenty of right-wing pundits and republicans insisted that the President’s executive action was an “attack” on the Second Amendment, an attempt to abridge folks’ right to bear arms. The fire that’s been in Obama’s voice ever since “folks wanna pop off” rolled over to Tuesday’s speech, with the President insisting that he was as pro-Second Amendment as anyone.
“I believe in the Second Amendment,” Obama said, “I know the Second Amendment. It’s right there on the paper. I did TEACH Constitutional Law.” Obama would use his history in Constitutional Law again later on in his address, but in that moment, the President sought to silence those who felt he was trying to take away their rights to guns. “I don’t want my words being twisted,” the President insisted.
In fact, the President questioned why gun control was even a bipartisan issue at all. He called it “common sense” to want to require a background check for anyone who wanted to own a gun, and the President also outlined a more specific type of background check – one that acknowledged past criminal activity and also past mental illness history. The latter, the President suggested, was a way of encouraging “proof” for those involved in shooting incidents who often try to employ an “insanity” or “mental health” defense when they’re at trial.
Ingeniously, President Obama also quoted a number of Republican darlings in an effort, no doubt, to reinforce that curbing gun violence was a partisan issue. He quoted George W. Bush, his 2008 opponent John McCain, and the oft-go-to Republican President, Ronald Reagan, throughout his speech. He insisted that his Executive Action was not the end all, be all, and that “Congress still has to do their part,” going so far as to suggest that much of the opposition towards gun control was for personal gain. “They block these kinds of laws because they want to secure votes,” Obama spoke plainly.
But then the President returned to the Constitution. In what can only be described as part “demonstration” of his Constitutional Law background and part masterful application of the Bill of Rights to modern incidents, the President argued that “The Second Amendment is important. But other Amendments are important, too.” He claimed that gun violence had jeopardized the First Amendment rights of many — the “right to peaceably assemble,” Obama charged, “was robbed of movie-goers in Colorado” (referring to Dark Knight shooter James Holmes’ attack in an Aurora, CO movie theater); and the “right to religious freedom… was under attack in Charleston” (citing Dylann Roof’s act of domestic terrorism against churchgoers in South Carolina last summer).
His passion was overwhelmed by his compassion, as the President, seeking to remind people that the victims of gun violence are often children, shed tears in the middle of his address. “It makes me so frustrated,” Obama lamented, in a rare moment of breaking his composure publicly. Shows of emotion are not new to President Obama, but they aren’t very common; and Obama crying during his address suggested that the gun control issue struck a chord with him quite personally.
Incidents involving black people and gun violence also were mentioned in Obama’s address. In addition to the aforementioned Charleston shooting, the President acknowledged the gun violence in his native Chicago, and even chose to conclude his address by examining the heroism of Zaevion Dobson, the 15-year-old student in Tennessee who was killed trying to shield three young girls from a shooting spree in his neighborhood.
“I’m not asking you to be as courageous as Zaevion,” Obama appealed to his audience, “But I am asking you to have the courage to try.”
“Trying” was the hallmark of Obama’s speech. The President insisted that he couldn’t accept a culture in this country where gun violence and shootings were something people became “numb” to because they were so common. “We can’t save every person,” The President admitted, “but we can maybe save some of them.”
The President acknowledged that progress in a more effective process for gun control “wouldn’t happen overnight.” He acknowledged that it might not come during his Presidency, and not even “with (this current) Congress.” But more importantly, he acknowledged black lives in the makeup — in the crosshairs, even — of the gun control conversation, and demonstrated a candor we can expect to set a tone for his last remaining months in office.
If folks indeed want to pop off, Tuesday assured us that, for his final year in office, President Barack Obama is ready to pop back.