President Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
For those who doubted that Barack Obama would maintain his commitment to a gun-safety agenda that challenges the supposed political power of the National Rifle Association, and the political caution of Democrats who more than a decade ago decided for the most cynical of reasons to abandon the struggle to address gun violence, the president’s fourth State of the Union address provided the answer.
Obama’s speech delivered a bold economic message—a rejection of the austerity threat posed by Paul Ryan and the Republican right in favor of a job-creation agenda—and it renewed the liberal promises of his recent inaugural address: fair pay for women, fair treatment for lesbians and gays, immigration reform, a return to seriousness with regard to climate change. The president was still too supportive of free-trade fantasies and he made an unsettling, if ill-defined, bow to the wrongheaded approaches of the Simpson-Bowles commission. Yet, his speech was aggressively progressive on a host of issues, calling for a hike in the minimum wage to $9 an hour, for real investments “in high-quality early education” and for a renewal of America’s commitment to voting rights.
That would have been enough in most years.
But this year’s State of the Union Address—coming just two months after the nation was shaken by the gun massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school—demanded more.
And the president recognized that demand.
The emotional highpoint of his address to a joint session of Congress came late in the speech, when Obama pivoted from a review of his global vision—bringing troops home from Afghanistan, reducing nuclear arsenals, a genuine embrace of diplomacy—toward domestic affairs. And toward the most human, the most genuinely and understandably emotional of concerns.
“Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource—our children,” Obama began.
“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around commonsense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.”
Then the president went deeper. He went beyond the policy provisions that are to be expected in State of the Union addresses to a specific, and pointed, demand.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” said the president in remarks that were directed two men seated within feet of him: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Addressing the crisis of obstruction, which has stalled action on so many fundamental challenges, the president said: “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Then the president struck the most poignant and powerful note of the night.
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house,” the president announced with his voice rising as he declared:
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence—they deserve a simple vote.
Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
That reference to “the work of self-government” might have been lost in the moment, as thunderous applause shook the chamber to which more than thirty members of Congress had invited constituents who have been affected by gun violence. But it will not be lost on Americans whose attention has been refocused by their president on the gun-safety debate.
Obama’s determination to devote so substantial a portion of his State of the Union Address to the gun debate that is still in formation, and his willingness to make specific and repeated demands for House and Senate votes, provided another indication that he will not let this issue go. He will press Congress to act, as he must. After decades of neglect, not just by NRA-tied Republicans but by Democrats who were willing to put political expediency ahead of principle, Barack Obama engaged in the work of self-government. And he reminded Americans that their Congress has a responsibility to do the same.
Where are the student voices in the gun control debate? Read more at TheNation.com's StudentNation blog.