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President Obama Is Finally Changing the Debate on Guns

The president's new executive orders on guns may be modest. But they're also indicative of a shift in the culture.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The seditionists who took over a federal building in southeastern Oregon last Saturday now have a moniker. The group, led by two sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, are calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. It is fitting that a name be one of their priorities, since their takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters was partly about what people are called.

Dwight and Steven Hammond, two ranchers who twice committed arson on federal lands, had been sentenced under a federal anti-terrorism statute. One of the organizers of Saturday’s rally for Hammond supporters—the one that preceded the Bundy militia’s takeover of the Malheur headquarters—told Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post that while they can’t deny the arson, the mandatory five-year sentence was “absolutely egregious.” The protester then added, “These are just country folk, they’re not terrorists.” 

Semantics have played an outsized role in the debate over whether the Bundy boys and their band in Oregon should be classified “terrorists,” given that the facts speak for themselves: They staged an armed takeover of a federal outpost and are threatening violence against any law enforcement officers who might attempt to remove them. But many dismiss them as yokels. Perhaps we’re just that numb to guns.

It is fascinating and frightening to see these men living out their fantasies of armed rebellion, even on such a microscopic scale. These are fantasies fed chiefly by those who profit the most from American fear and death, both of which bolster gun sales, toxic masculinity, and superficial feelings of personal safety. I’d count not just gun dealers who bypass background checks online and at gun shows in that number, but also the mostly Republican politicians in Washington and nationwide who feed gun culture with dangerous, ahistorical rhetoric about threats to the Second Amendment. 

Fittingly, President Obama has announced a series of new executive actions to single out those profiteers, within Congress and without. 

The actions, the first since his 2013 gun safety orders issued after the Sandy Hook massacre, have four key goals: closing the background check loopholes for firearms purchases, proscribing purchases made by those with serious criminal records and the mentally ill; increasing enforcement of current gun laws; improving gun safety technology; and strengthening mental health treatment and help for domestic violence survivors. To that last point, the Obama administration wants $500 million to “increase access to mental health care,” a direct shot at Republicans who after mass shootings regularly exonerate our perverse gun culture and exacerbate the stigmas placed upon the mentally ill. 

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who implied that Obama’s actions infringe upon the Second Amendment, will likely lead an effort to block that funding in the House, because Obama. That is as good a reason as Republicans ever seem to need, even when wounding themselves politically in the process. Or, even, blocking gun control legislation after 20 small children are massacred in a school. Even though Ryan may even agree with some of the measures the president advocates, there is little reason to expect his party to address this issue seriously. 

But “because Obama” is not the only reason why those Republicans largely follow the bidding of the National Rifle Association and gun sellers, over the pleading of parents and even law-abiding gun owners who support reforms. I get it; moving further right on guns has been a winning strategy. A shooting happens, and people buy more guns. The Democratic president laments said shooting, and people buy more guns. Firearms in America, politically, are thus much like the Trump campaign; no matter how much horror and hypocrisy they engender, they benefit. To boot, the president, a former constitutional law professor whose administration seeks to stem the violence, is demeaned as a guy violating the American way of life.

There is a certain truth in that, actually. I disagreed with the president to an extent when he said on Tuesday that “we are not inherently more prone to violence” here in America. Carnage is a part of our national DNA, and it does us no favors to deny that. But the key, as he noted, is that “we do not have to accept this carnage as the price of freedom.” Gun culture is inherently American—but as with the definition of “American,” it is not immutable.

That conviction is why, I suspect, President Obama approached his announcement of his executive actions on Tuesday with the spirit of both a legislator and a community organizer. In addition to implementing policy, he was movement-building. 

Now, in the final full year of his presidency, Obama seems to have found a way to break out of the position to which he was relegated by Republican obstinance: that of Mourner-in-Chief whenever a shooting occurs. Granted, he teared up when recounting the Sandy Hook victims, and movingly recounted how Tennessee teen Zaevion Dobson died saving three young girls from a random shooting spree last month. But he clearly hopes that pairing that grief this time with action, even if it may not make much of a dent in the problem, will inspire citizens to do even more on a state and local front. 

The idea that all gun control has to come on the federal level is a folly, as the president noted Tuesday by citing how Connecticut did right and Missouri did wrong with recent measures. But truly, as even he realizes, the most constant gun problem here in the United States is a cultural one, a sick addiction to dangerous devices we’re told will make us safer and too often serve to steal lives like that of Dobson’s.

Will these new actions solve America’s most urgent gun problems, namely suicide, shootings in predominantly black communities, and guns in the hands of domestic terrorists like Dylann Roof, Robert Dear, and the Bundys? Will it make movie theaters, churches, and college campuses immune from bullets? Perhaps not, especially in Texas. But it is refreshing to see the gun debate turn away from mourning and semantics and towards policy and shifting the culture. 

It will be compelling to see whether the president makes an even more prominent effort to lead that cultural fight in the coming weeks, as Republicans challenge him on cable news and possibly the courts. When we reflect upon them in years to come, we may find that these Obama actions served us less as policies, and more as a national kick in the ass.