Abundant Guns Contribute to Conflicts With Police, Obama Says

Dallas Mayor, Police Chief News Conference on Shootings
  • Obama says Dallas shooter ‘demented’ and not representative
  • President cutting European trip short to visit Texas city

The proliferation of guns among the U.S. citizenry contributes to lethal encounters between minorities and police, heightening the danger law enforcement officers face in even routine interactions with the public, President Barack Obama said on Saturday.

“Part of what’s creating tensions between communities and the police is the fact that our police have a really difficult time in communities where they know guns are everywhere,” Obama said at the end of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Warsaw during a press conference dominated by news of unrest in the U.S.

“If you care about the safety of our police officers, then you can’t set aside the gun issue and pretend that’s irrelevant,” Obama said.

In his most extensive remarks on the issue since police killed black civilians in Louisiana and Minnesota this week, sparking nationwide protests, and an attack in Dallas killed five police officers during one such protest, Obama also said that the violence isn’t a sign of deeper divisions in the U.S.

For the second time in three days, the president sought to calm a nation that has been jolted by protests over the killing of black men by police. What had been a peaceful protest in Dallas ended in the shooting of 12 police officers on Thursday, an attack Obama previously called “vicious, calculated and despicable.’’

‘Rightly Outraged’

“Americans of all races and all backgrounds are rightly outraged by the inexcusable attacks on police, whether it’s in Dallas or anyplace else,” Obama said. “We cannot let the actions of a few define all of us,” he said, calling the shooter in Dallas a “demented individual” without using his name.

The president cut his foreign trip short due to the shootings and unrest, electing to return to Washington on Sunday night after visiting Spain. He will visit Dallas early next week, with the goal of bridging divisions between police and minority communities, the White House said.

Obama noted that protests against the police in many cities over the killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota have been “almost uniformly peaceful” and that “you’ve seen, uniformly, police handling those protests with professionalism.”

“You’re not seeing riots and you’re not seeing police go after” peaceful protesters, he said, drawing a contrast with civil unrest of the 1960s.

‘Hard to Untangle’

The Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, was a 25-year-old military veteran who told a police negotiator he was upset by police killings of black men, including those in the past week, said Dallas police chief David Brown. After a standoff in which he told negotiators he wanted to kill white police officers, Johnson was killed by an explosive device delivered by a robot.

Authorities said he acted alone. Obama said that it was “very hard to untangle the motives” of Johnson.

For a QuickTake on U.S. police shootings and race, click here.

Guns and Cops

Obama said the presence of guns complicated police actions in all three incidents. Sterling was armed; Castile had a legal weapon in his car; and some of the protesters in Dallas were openly carrying weapons, which is legal in Texas.

“Imagine you’re a police officer; as you’re trying to sort out who is shooting at them there are a bunch of people who’ve got guns on them” among the protesters, Obama said of the scene in Dallas. “In Minnesota, we don’t know what happened but we do know that there was a gun in the car that apparently was licensed. But it caused, in some fashion, those tragic events.”

The easy availability of guns, he said, “is a contributing factor, not the sole factor, but a contributing factor between the broader tensions that arise between police and the communities they serve.”

Protests over videotaped police shootings and racial tension have dogged Obama’s presidency, as he’s railed against disparities in the criminal justice system while also acknowledging that police have a difficult job. The nation’s first black president has said racial tension in the U.S. is rooted in centuries of history, and will take more than one presidency to resolve.

“As tough, as hard, as depressing as the loss of life was this week, we’ve got a foundation to build on,” Obama said.

Candidates Respond

Obama has launched initiatives aimed at supporting young black and Hispanic males, called for an overhaul of criminal sentencing, and created a task force to review police tactics. Some Republicans have called his actions divisive, with a handful accusing him of fomenting an anti-police sentiment.

The candidates vying to succeed Obama canceled campaign events Friday and released conciliatory statements condemning the deaths and expressing condolences for the victims.

“Racial tensions have gotten worse, not better,” Republican Donald Trump said in a statement Friday. In a Twitter post on Friday, Hillary Clinton said: “White Americans need to do a better job of listening” to the plight faced by blacks.

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