At times, he was the calm, measured constitutional law professor making the case for common sense gun safety rules. At other points, he was the father of two young girls concerned about the safety of his children. And in the face of repeated questioning from gun owners, he was the patient priest listening to the confessions of fear from a flock of skeptics and nonbelievers.
If you were expecting a radical, rabid leftist who wants to take away your guns, nothing in the president's performance last night suggested he was that person. In fact, the longstanding right-wing caricature of President Obama as a gun-hating, constitution-slashing socialist tyrant has always been at war with itself.
"I’ve been very good for gun manufacturers," the president joked to Anderson Cooper last night. Gun sales have soared under his administration. More guns were sold last month than almost any other month in nearly two decades. More than a million were sold in one month when Obama was elected in November 2008.
The gun-buying hysteria is not about anything the president has said or done. His proposals, which most Americans support, have been relatively modest. Nor is it about rising crime. Crime rates have reached record lows in America. It's largely about white fear. Many white Americans are afraid of Blacks, Hispanics or Muslims with guns. Even though Blacks are far more likely than whites to be gun homicide victims, whites are far more likely than Blacks to own guns.
White America and Black America live in two different worlds when it comes to guns. Perhaps that explains why six of the seven white people who spoke at the CNN-sponsored town hall meeting last night were gun owners or strong gun rights supporters. Even Mark Kelly, who has helped lead the fight for expanded background checks since his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was struck by a bullet in a mass shooting five years ago today, prefaced his remarks last night by announcing that he and his wife were still gun owners.
The gun debate is not about logic. It's about fear. That was on display with several of the illogical comments made by pro-gun supporters at last night's town hall meeting. Taya Kyle, the widow of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, told the president that "we have to recognize that we cannot outlaw murder" because people are still murdering. Well, that makes no sense. Of course we can and do outlaw murder, and we don't stop outlawing it just because people keep murdering.
Remember, the point of gun safety rules is not to eliminate every gun crime but to do everything we can to reduce the number of these crimes. The critics are right about one thing. Expanded background checks will not end gun violence. But nobody ever promised they would. Yet if we could simply reduce the number of annual gun deaths from 30,000 to 28,000, as the president said, "that's 2,000 families who don't have to go through what the families at Newtown or San Bernardino or Charleston went through."
The president also responded to the illogical assertion that background checks would not have stopped some of the recent mass shootings in America. "I think it's really important for us not to suggest that if we can't solve every crime, we shouldn't try to solve any crimes," the president said. But again, there's that logic thing.
The next question, from Kimberly Corban, a rape survivor from Colorado, was just as illogical. "Why can't your administration see that these restrictions that you're putting in make it harder for me to own a gun, or harder for me to take that where I need to be is actually just making my kids and I less safe?" she asked.
Are any of these critics even listening to what the president is proposing? The president is not making it harder for Corban to own a gun or to take it anywhere she wants. As a law-abiding citizen, she would still have the right to buy a gun and would continue to enjoy that right with expanded background checks. As for the restrictions on where private citizens can carry their weapons, that has nothing to do with the president's plan. Those rules are generally determined by states.
Sheriff Paul Babeu, a Republican running for Congress in Arizona, posed another illogical question, asking the president why he doesn't focus on mental illness, which he called "the real problem," instead of background checks. But if we all agree that people with dangerous mental illnesses should not have easy access to guns, what's the harm in background checks to identify those people when they try to buy those guns?
Kris Jacob, a gun shop owner, followed later with his own illogical question, asking the president why he won't focus on enforcing the existing laws by adding AFT agents to keep criminals out of stores instead of investigating gun shop owners who sell guns to criminals. "My hope is that responsible gun dealers like yourself, and your organization are going to be supportive of this proposal because it should actually help push away unscrupulous dealers," the president responded. "That means more customers for you guys."
Give President Obama credit. He answered a series of illogical questions with intelligent answers and demonstrated patience with stupidity that I no longer have on this issue. There's no good reason why any responsible gun owner or dealer should fear the president's very limited executive actions on gun safety. No good reason but fear itself.
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(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)