Thursday afternoon was the 15th time in his presidency that Barack Obama spoke to the nation after a mass shooting. It is a depressing and routine coda to the depressing and routine incidents of gun violence that are a depressing and routine feature of life in America circa 2015.
The latest tragedy happened in a small community college in Oregon — a 26-year-old man with three guns; 10 people killed, 7 injured, countless lives forever and irrevocably changed. By one estimate this is the 142nd school shooting since Newtown. But of course no corner of America is immune from the unceasing drumbeat of gun violence. Last month alone, 21 states had a mass shooting. Yesterday’s was the 294th mass shooting in America this year — that’s more than one a day.
However, what made the president’s response to this latest tragedy un-routine was the extraordinary candor of his comments. Rather than simply go after the NRA or the gun rights advocates who fight tooth and nail to prevent even the most minor gun control legislation from becoming law, Obama spread the blame to where it really belongs — us.
“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America,” said Obama. “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”
Obama’s argument is one that cannot be stated enough times. We as a nation — those of us who love guns and those of us who abhor them; those of us who are gun rights advocates and those of us who call for stricter gun controls — bear the collective responsibility for the daily carnage of gun violence.
It’s not that we don’t know what’s happening. We all remember Newtown or Aurora or Charleston. We’ve simply accepted the fact that schools now regularly perform active-shooter drills with our children. We’ve resigned ourselves to the notion that nothing can ever change because the NRA is too powerful. We’ve somehow come to believe that the issue with gun violence is poor mental health screening, as if America, with its 30,000 gun deaths, is the only country in the world with people who suffer from mental illness. We throw up our hands over the fact that even though an overwhelming majority of Americans want stronger background checks for gun buyers — Congress does nothing.
As Obama said on Thursday, if we want to put a stop to these unceasing tragedies, it “will require a change of politics on this issue.” It will, for example, require voters in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin to decide whether the votes of their senators — all up for reelection next year — against expanded background checks should be a relevant factor in how they cast their ballots. It will also mean taking into account a candidate’s views on gun control — and not just when voting for federal office, but also state and local officials.
The National Rifle Association and its supporters represent a powerful interest in this country, but they are hardly omnipotent. The real power resides in the hands of voters — those who demand change. But the only way that power can be wielded is if the majority of Americans decide to use it. To be sure, we can’t stop every gun death in this country — there are simply too many weapons, and gun culture is too deeply embedded in our national DNA. We’re not about to go the route of Australia or Britain and impose strict regulations on gun ownership. But stronger gun control laws can save lives.
After the impassioned and unvarnished words of our president, no American so outraged by gun violence can argue again that they haven’t been told.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.