Why Today Is Not the Day for Obama To Argue for Gun Control

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Dec. 14 2012 6:28 PM

Today Is a Day for Tears, Not Politics

The president’s job today is to comfort a nation, not score political points.

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President Obama wipes tears during a news conference in response to the elementary school shooting in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

Maybe I spend too much time listening to politicians. Maybe I can’t get past seeing my children in that line of kids holding hands as they’re being led through the Sandy Hook school parking lot. But I don’t want to hear President Obama talk about gun control six hours after the shooting. When he spoke this afternoon, he said there will be time to take action and then he returned the focus to where it should be, on the parents grieving over the loss of those 20 children.

We’re all trying to come to terms with today’s tragedy and for a lot of people that means talking about gun control or fighting against it. For others it’s about mental health. It’s probably about both. Have at it. Light up Twitter. But the president’s job today is not to get into that debate. His job is to lend some comfort to those parents who thought they were going to have family movie night tonight or whose biggest worry today was supposed to be how to beat the weekend traffic on their annual holiday trip. (You can argue that a president shouldn’t play this role, but this is the one we have come to cast him in.)

“We never come out here,” a local television reporter just said of Newtown, Conn., which was always too sleepy and calm to make the Action News. It is a horrible sucking hole of woe that has been opened up in Connecticut and the president’s job today is to bear witness for those stuck in that hole. Maybe the president’s words never reach those families, but he can speak to the community, to the parents who are at sea, sick to their stomachs about their neighbors and who feel guilty that they’re happy they have kids they can still hug.

For the rest of the nation, I’m betting more people see this as a human tragedy than a moment for political debate. If that’s so, I’m guessing those people could also use a little guidance, comfort, or fellow-feeling from their president. Better that a president make some stab at giving them that solace than cheapen the moment by making a political point. Politics cheapens almost everything, why should we imagine an emergency dose right now is a good idea?

Even if the president fails in all this, even if those of us in the blast radius find no comfort in connecting with his tears at the podium, he at least can keep from stirring up the big public roar. The media already skips over the families of the victims to obsess over the shooter. When Obama visited the families of the victims in Aurora, Col., they asked him to do what he could to get the media to focus on the victims, not the shooter. Why should the president help kick up a gun debate today that will give the media another topic to obsess over at the expense of the families? The gun debate will go on tonight as will the madness over the shooter (perhaps by daybreak we’ll stop misidentifying him), but the president doesn't have to contribute to it.

Plus, words are cheap today. If you’re an advocate for gun control, shouldn’t the crucial moment be in four weeks or four months when nothing has happened to prevent another day like today? The president said, “We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” OK, so hold him to that. The president is the only one who can start this debate and sustain it. Because while a president’s ability to shape public opinion is more limited than we think, he does have the power to put things on the agenda and keep them there.

The cycle is familiar: shock and outrage followed by inaction, whether the shootings are in a movie theater or on a street corner in Chicago. That’s when the president will need to hear these voices. Those voices will be proof that there is a sustaining passion for a political solution and that today’s calls for action aren’t just another bout of momentary outrage that has come and gone too many times before.