On Thursday night, for the first time since he rolled out his plan to expand background checks for guns, President Barack Obama publicly faced his critics—some of them, that is. His audience of several dozen at a CNN-hosted town hall included a mother and rape survivor, a shooting-range owner, and an Arizona sheriff, all of whom questioned Obama’s approach to the gun-violence epidemic. The only voice missing was the one that has long overshadowed these debates—the National Rifle Association. NRA officials declined their CNN invitation, preferring the comfort of Fox News to what they labeled a “public relations spectacle.”
Obama was ready to pounce on the NRA’s absence; he looked most at ease during the hour-plus event whenever he was attacking and counterpointing the group. Early on, host Anderson Cooper asked the president about the NRA’s absence. “Since this is a main reason they exist, you’d think that they’d be prepared to have a debate with the president,” he said, pointing out (pointedly) that their headquarters was just “right down the street.”
Only a few minutes in, Obama had already shed the last of his overly cautious image on guns. And he’d begun to give Democratic candidates in 2016 an object lesson in how to talk about gun control—and its fiercest foes.
For most of his time in office, Obama has mostly treaded carefully on the issue, calling on Congress to take action after each round of national mourning for a mass shooting rather than tapping into his own (albeit limited) presidential powers to take action. As a candidate, he was similarly cautious. Finally, at the Virginia town hall, Obama proved he has outgrown any fear of the gun lobby.
Democratic candidates, presidential and otherwise, have long been silent and defensive on gun control, fearing that gun owners’ distrust, stoked by NRA spending, would cost them elections. That thinking dates back at least to 1994, when Democrats lost Congress and the defeat was partly chalked up to backlash from the recently passed assault-weapons ban. The conventional wisdom only solidified when Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in 2000, costing Democrats the White House—another loss blamed, with scant evidence, on the Democratic candidate’s support for the assault-weapons ban and other forms of gun control.
It took roughly 20 years, but Obama has finally marked the end of the Democratic Party’s silent era on guns. His executive actions and last night’s forum mark the start—a strong one—to 2016, a year in which Democrats may finally learn to talk straight about the NRA and make combatting gun violence an issue they use to win votes, rather than shrink from.
Obama may not have convinced any of his NRA opponents that all he wants are modest measures, but he doesn’t need to. The NRA’s base won’t move, no matter what Democrats do or don’t do. But the vast majority of Americans already agree with the president on sensible background checks. Some 90 percent support background checks for guns, and in a poll before the town hall, CNN found that 67 percent of Americans support Obama’s recent executive actions.
Yet when asked about the likely effectiveness of his actions, the polls flip, showing nearly six in ten think they won’t reduce gun deaths. It’s those sympathetic-but-skeptical Americans who Obama addressed most effectively on Thursday, giving us a preview of how the next Democratic presidential nominee will likely frame the party’s message on guns. “The goal here is just to make progress,” he said—incremental, but life-saving, progress.
Obama has given Democrats a template for how to navigate the gun-control issue in 2016. In his final year of office, he’s come out in front on gun violence, experimenting with the right message and providing his fellow Democrats with some political cover by taking the flak for it. He offered a roadmap on Thursday to the two Democratic presidential frontrunners—and candidates down-ballot as well—on how to campaign for gun reform.
First, he was (mostly) up-front about his own experience with guns. In the past, Obama has sometimes done his version of the compulsory “Democratic candidate goes hunting” photo-op, referencing his passion for hunting and skeet shooting (to be fair, he did mention it in passing on Thursday). But gun owners (along with everyone else) have long known enough to dismiss that as pandering. Obama’s far more effective moments at the forum came when he spoke about his other experience with guns, including Chicago’s gun violence, which has taken victims just blocks from his home.
Second, he knew who he was trying to convince: people who are already concerned about gun violence, but aren’t convinced that new regulations are really going to help. He turned to gun owners in the audience more than once, explaining that people “less responsible” than them shouldn’t be able to get a gun without a background check. And he came back again and again to his broader argument: “There’s nothing else in our lives that we purchase where we don’t try to make it a little safer if we can,” he said, comparing the gun industry to cars, toys, and medicine that have become safer with regulation.
Finally, Obama knew his enemy, and called the NRA out for its spin. At one point, Cooper asked him if it’s fair to call the idea he wants to take everybody’s guns a conspiracy, since “a lot of people really believe this deeply.” Obama—so visibly frustrated he mixed up Anderson Cooper’s name—cut in: “I’m sorry, Cooper. Yes, it is fair to call it a conspiracy. What are you saying? Are you suggesting that the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody’s guns away so that we can impose martial law is a conspiracy? Yes, that is a conspiracy!”
It’s too soon, of course, to know if Obama’s approach will prove politically popular or just manage to embolden the NRA’s base—probably both. But Democrats appear more and more inclined to stop tiptoeing around the issue and the NRA. Hillary Clinton proposed an almost-identical plan to Obama’s executive actions last fall, a promising sign she’d continue Obama’s march if she becomes the nominee. Bernie Sanders also recently embraced Obama’s actions. If this year’s Democratic nominee pushes further ideas for using executive powers to make incremental progress on gun control—and calls out the NRA and its arguments with anything near the force that Obama showed on Thursday—then we’ll know the stalemate on guns in electoral politics has finally broken.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a CNN/ORC poll found one in six Americans think Obama’s executive orders will be ineffective in reducing gun deaths. The poll found that nearly six in ten Americans believe his measures will be ineffective.