President Obama's Tone On Mass Shootings Grows More Frustrated

Jun 13, 2016
Originally published on June 14, 2016 9:43 am
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama says he hopes Americans will reflect over the coming days and weeks about the best way to respond to deadly attacks like the one in Orlando. He says battling terrorist groups and their hateful ideology is part of the answer. And he also suggested not for the first time that America should change what he calls its lax gun laws.

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BARACK OBAMA: We make it very easy for individuals who are troubled or disturbed or want to engage in violent acts to get very powerful weapons very quickly.

CORNISH: President Obama has made this argument after earlier mass shootings. But his efforts to rewrite the gun laws have stalled in Congress. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk more about this. And Scott, the president has had a lot of experience addressing deadly shootings like this one over the weekend in Orlando. How has his message actually changed over the years?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Audie, you're right. Gun violence has plagued this president throughout his time in office. Early on, he tended to approach these events primarily as consoler-in-chief. He would offer praise for the police and paramedics who responded and comfort for the victims and their families. Here's Obama, for example, after the shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 when Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded dozens of others.

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OBAMA: My immediate thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and with the families of the fallen and with those who live and serve at Fort Hood.

HORSLEY: That shooting happened on a Texas military base. Fourteen months later, it was a supermarket in Arizona where Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

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OBAMA: I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping all the victims and their families, including Gabby, in our thoughts and prayers.

HORSLEY: We heard similar sentiments from the president after mass shootings at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. But eventually his message changed.

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OBAMA: Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.

HORSLEY: This is Obama late last year after a mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Ore. Eight students and a professor were gunned down before the killer took his own life. And you can hear the growing exasperation in the president's voice.

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OBAMA: We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

CORNISH: Scott, you're showing us there a kind of change in tone. But what changed between those earlier speeches, where the president was essentially offering comfort and where he is now?

HORSLEY: Well, the turning point, Audie, or maybe the breaking point was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children - 6 and 7 years old - were shot to death along with six adults at the school. The gunman, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother before taking his own life. Obama has called that the single worst day of his presidency.

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OBAMA: We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

HORSLEY: That happened just about a month after the president had been re-elected. And up until that time, Obama had not really been willing to challenge the gun lobby or the status quo. That was considered a losing cause politically. But after Sandy Hook in December of 2012, Obama went all in.

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OBAMA: In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens - from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators - in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.

HORSLEY: And he did. During the opening months of his second term, the president put a lot of political capital on the line in an effort to pass what he called common-sense gun control measures. He created a task force. He rallied public support. And he managed to get a bipartisan bill drafted that would've expanded background checks for gun buyers. That measure failed to pass the Senate, though, and Obama was terribly disappointed when he spoke to reporters in the White House Rose Garden after the vote.

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OBAMA: Most of these senators could not offer any good reason why we wouldn't want to make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun.

CORNISH: That was back in spring of 2013. What's happened since then?

HORSLEY: Well, Audie, the mass shootings have certainly continued, and so have the smaller-scale shootings that claim thousands of lives each year. Each time there is a major shooting, the president tries to call attention to it. Now he has issued some executive orders to expand and improve background checks, but he's basically given up pushing legislation through the current Congress. He says if voters want new, stricter gun laws, they're probably going to need to elect some new lawmakers.

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OBAMA: I'd ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws and to save lives and to let young people grow up. And that will require a change of politics on this issue.

HORSLEY: Now with this weekend's shooting, you also have the specter of terrorism, which is another place to put the blame. Obama insists it doesn't have to be a case of getting tough on terrorists or getting tough on guns. He argues the government can do both.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.