President Barack Obama is rarely at a loss for words. But language seemed to fail him Thursday when he spoke about gun violence and the mass shooting that killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” he said. “Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
By one count, it was the 14th time the president has made a statement related to a shooting. Citing “the politics in this town” — a phrase never uttered in a positive context these days — Obama offered no hope for responsible gun legislation from Congress. He called for an American reckoning with gun violence. But he sounded like he had no capacity for inspiring one.
Interestingly, the president was more hopeful about the other disturbing aspect of this case: racism. “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” he said. The alleged gunman is reported to have spouted racist accusations before firing.
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Obama’s tone on race was in notable contrast to his despair about guns. “The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome,” he said.
Perhaps because his own life is such a profound marker of progress, Obama is often optimistic about issues of race. He seems to understand that cultural change is hard and takes time.
And so it will be with the culture of guns. As with racism, legislation is necessary but not sufficient. As Obama said, the nation needs to “shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.” The proliferation of guns in dangerous hands is in part a problem of culture. Recklessness about guns is tolerated — accepted, even — in too many communities.
In this regard, racism and violence are too much alike. Neither, however, need be a permanent fixture of American life.