I can’t remember a time when “gun rights” -- the rights of people to buy, own, and carry pretty much any gun and in many cases any number of guns they want -- did not dominate debates about gun policy. The phrase has been part of the political lexicon for what seems like decades.
President Obama turned that argument in an interesting direction, away from the Second Amendment and toward rights and themes at the core of other foundational documents, as he unveiled his package of gun proposals. The Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment, and the Gettysburg Address all made appearances in a speech that cast a new and different meaning on another familiar political phrase, the right to life.
“The right to worship freely and safely, that right was denied to Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The right to assemble peaceably, that right was denied shoppers in Clackamas, Oregon, and moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado,” Obama said in an explicit reference to the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
“That most fundamental set of rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech, and high school students at Columbine, and elementary school students in Newtown, and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate, and all the families who’ve never imagined that they’d lose a loved one to a bullet -- those rights are at stake,” the president continued, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence.
Obama did not leave out the part of the Declaration about Americans being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights that no man or government can take away from us,” as he put it. But he added: “As we've also long recognized, as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities. Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of, and by, and for the people.” That final phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln’s impassioned Gettysburg Address.
Speaking in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, two days after a gunman mowed down 20 first-graders and six adults trying to protect them, Obama hinted briefly at these ideas. “Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?” he asked then.
Most of that speech, however, alternated between consolation and attempts to douse the nation with cold water, to rip the cobwebs from our eyes. The unstated subtext was clearly along the lines of “What on Earth have we been thinking? Our background-check system is a sieve, we have no way to track guns used by criminals, we don’t even have research on guns, and why do civilians need assault weapons, anyway?”
Obama, of course, has been part of the inertia, a point underscored sadly by the speech he gave in Tucson, Ariz., almost exactly two years ago, after a gunman shot then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head, wounded a dozen others, and killed six people, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. He implored the country back then to meet the expectations of a child who had come to meet her congressional representative. "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it,” he said.
It took a singularly horrific incident, first-graders massacred with a semiautomatic weapon in their classroom, to jolt Obama and perhaps America into action.
On Wednesday, Christina was succeeded by 7-year-old Grace McDonnell, killed in Newtown, an aspiring painter whose work now hangs in Obama’s private study off the Oval Office. “Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace. And I think about the life that she lived and the life that lay ahead of her, and most of all, I think about how, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now -- for Grace,” Obama said.
The difference is that instead of skirting cold, hard policy decisions, as he did in an emotional but non-substantive speech two years ago, this time Obama signed 23 executive orders on the spot and sent a package of proposals to Congress, even as he acknowledged the difficulty of passing them in an overheated political environment.
“There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty,” he said. In fact that strain of thinking and rhetoric is already full-throated. How effectively Obama can defuse all the “don’t tread on me” bombast with the words of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln is unclear, but it can’t hurt to remind people that gun rights were not the only rights the founders had in mind way back when.