Perplexed.

Photographer: Pool via Getty Images

Obama's Gun Show Misfire

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

President Barack Obama's CNN town hall on guns was a muddle. Still, it was an interesting and, for the president, potentially educational one.

Obama seemed flummoxed for much of the event. His reputation as a hyper-rational "Spock" who fails to understand the everyday anxieties of his constituents has always been a caricature. He is both rational and intuitive, skilled at seeing the world from another's perspective. (If he were not, rest assured that Barack Hussein Obama, named after his Kenyan father, would not reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)  

But Obama's brand of reason has little sway with adherents of the gun movement. And he failed utterly to locate, or calm, the jittery emotional center of the arguments fired at him during the town hall. Obama can ably comfort a mother who lost her child to violence. He appears lost among gun devotees.

The task wasn't easy: Obama shared none of the premises of the anti-regulation questions he was asked. But those premises are widely assumed in the gun movement.

Taya Kyle, whom CNN's Anderson Cooper described as the widow of Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who wrote "American Sniper," was first up. Unlike the National Rifle Association, which sensationalizes and exaggerates crime in the U.S., Kyle forthrightly acknowledged crime's long downward trend. Having acknowledged that crime is variable, however, and thus responsive to social conditions (even if we aren't sure which), she nonetheless concluded that gun violence is impervious to public policy.

"The thing is that the laws that we create don't stop these horrific things from happening, right?" she said. "And that's a very tough pill to swallow."

This is the first line of gun movement logic. Bad guys don't obey laws. So laws aimed at mitigating gun violence by bad guys are pointless. It's doubtful Kyle applies this reasoning to bank fraud or child abuse. But for some reason, it makes sense to her -- and millions of others -- when the topic is guns.

Later, an Arizona sheriff named Paul Babeu asked the same question in a different form: "And, how do we get those with mental illness, and criminals, that's the real problem here, how are we going to get them to follow the laws?"

The premise is that laws can't get criminals and the mentally ill to do anything. So why try? Hearing the question posed by a law-enforcement officer adds a degree of absurdity. But Obama had no good answer for it. If he intends to advance this discussion in his final year in office, he will need one.

Next came Kimberly Corban, whom Cooper introduced as a survivor of a brutal rape when she was a college student.

I have been unspeakably victimized once already, and I refuse to let that happen again to myself or my kids. So why can't your administration see that these restrictions that you're putting to 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?

This, too, is a familiar theme in gun land. Obama has proposed a modest, barely enforceable policy adjustment that has the potential to require a few more buyers to undergo background checks before they obtain a firearm. The purpose is to make it more difficult for felons, fugitives and the certified mentally ill to obtain a gun. In response, Corban asks, essentially, "Why are you taking my gun away?"

In gun world, there is no such thing as an overreaction. Obama proposes a policy with the (admittedly unobtainable) goal of applying background checks to all purchasers instead of merely most purchasers -- a policy strongly supported by the American public. The dogs of paranoia are immediately unleashed.

"History teaches that the measures now contemplated by Mr. Obama represent the first step that tyrannical governments take before engaging in campaigns of oppression," wrote a columnist in the Daily Caller.

Obama has grown accustomed to Congressional Republicans who traffic in nonsense for political purposes. There is some of that in gun land, of course. The NRA maintains an eternal flame of propaganda, and others are happy to fan it. But the questions Obama received at the forum show why it's so difficult to make progress on gun safety. Lots of gun-movement devotees aren't just saying stuff for political purposes. They actually believe it. When Obama speaks, they hear the echo of their own fears.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net