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UPDATED: The White House’s curious silence about Obama’s claim of skeet shooting

at 06:00 AM ET, 01/31/2013

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy using the skeet range at Camp David.

This column has been updated with a new ruling

The New Republic: “Have you ever fired a gun?”

President Obama: “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”

New Republic: ”The whole family?”

Obama: “Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there. And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”

— from an interview published Jan. 27, 2013

A number of readers have raised questions about the president’s statement that he goes skeet shooting “all the time” while at Camp David. In these suspicious times, they would like to see some evidence.

 But the White House has been oddly silent about the matter.

 On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he did know how often the president has gone skeet shooting and that he has not seen a photograph. “When he goes to Camp David, he goes to spend time with his family and friends and relax, not to produce photographs,” Carney told reporters.

 Of course, this did not stop the White House from releasing these photographs in 2011. (Obama is shown at Sasha Obama’s birthday party at Camp David; the second was taken the same weekend of Vice President Biden, but that is not at Camp David):

P061111PS-1111

 Then, on Wednesday, Carney tersely said he had no response to a challenge from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) for a skeet shooting contest with the president.

 We e-mailed a White House official on Tuesday and then Carney twice on Wednesday asking for the name of an Obama guest at Camp David who could confirm the president’s account. (The White House does not publicly release the names of guests.) We received no response all three times.

 So let’s review what we do know.

 

The Facts

 In skeet shooting, participants use shotguns to hit clay disks that are automatically flung into air, in an effort to simulate bird hunting. An interesting blog about Camp David, in a post from 2010, reports that many presidents have enjoyed skeet shooting at the rustic retreat. (Check out the photo of John F. Kennedy skeet shooting with future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.) The blog also displays overhead images over the years showing that the skeet range is located near the helicopter pad.

We searched high and low through hundreds of news reports to see if there was ever any other mention of Obama engaged in skeet shooting. We found that Obama, in a weekly radio address in 2012, congratulated Kim Rhode on becoming “the first American to win individual medals in five straight Olympics with her gold in skeet shooting” and Army Sgt. Vincent Hancock for a second skeet gold.

 But when the Olympic athletes later visited the White House, Obama did not make a reference to having attempted skeet shooting. Instead, he spoke of other sports that moved him to do better:

“But I was inspired to watch you guys even though I couldn’t do what you do.  I was inspired to run a little bit faster watching Tyson Gay, and lift a little more after watching Holley Mangold, or do a few more crunches after watching Michael Phelps and the other swimmers.  Somehow, it didn’t work quite on me.” 

 In 2011, Politico reported that Obama was “an infrequent visitor” to Camp David, compared to other presidents:

 

Those close to Obama say the president — who owns a home in Chicago — is more of an “urban guy,” who prefers hitting the basketball court and the golf course on weekends to blow off steam. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, upon returning from Camp David on his most recent trip, Obama headed straight for the links. And while Camp David includes a movie theater, bowling alley, swimming pool and endless biking and hiking trails, Obama prefers to stick close to the White House when he’s not on vacation.

Again, no mention of skeet shooting.

(UPDATE: A reader pointed us to an Associated Press article in 2010 which reported that after Obama met with the Texas Christian University national championship rifle team, one team member quoted Obama as saying he had practiced shooting a rifle with the Secret Service.)

We also could not find evidence that Obama ever tried skeet shooting before he became president.

During the 2008 campaign, a group that called itself the American Hunters and Shooters Association — which some pro-gun groups attacked as a front for anti-gun forces — endorsed Obama and announced he would attend a skeet shooting event in September in Colorado. “The Obama campaign says the skeet shooting event will highlight the Democrat’s support of the Second Amendment and hunting rights,” the Associated Press reported. But Ray Schoenke, a former Washington Redskins football player who headed the organization, said in an interview Wednesday that in the end Obama did not attend the Colorado event.

 Schoenke said that after Obama’s election, the organization — which he said was intended to bridge the gap between urban liberals and rural gun owners — closed down because of lack of support from the Obama administration. He said he did many events in support of the Obama campaign in 2008 but Obama never mentioned having ever handled a firearm.

During a September 2008 campaign event in Duryea, Pa.., Obama was point blank asked if he was “going to take away the guns.”  He gave a rather long answer, but he made no reference to having used a weapon himself — and this certainly would have been the perfect moment. Instead, he speaks of “your guns:”

 “The bottom line is this: If you’ve got a rifle, you've got a shotgun, you've got a gun in your house, I'm not taking it away. All right? So they can keep on talking about it, but this is just not true.
“And, by the way, even if — here's another thing you've got to understand. Even if I wanted to take it away, I couldn’t get it done. I don't have the votes in Congress….
“It's your guns. We're not going to mess with them, all right? I hope I made that clear. Is everybody clear back there in the back? Because I see a couple sportsmen back there. All right? Spread the word with your friends. I'm not going to take away your guns.”

 

Generally, a politician who has handled firearms will advertise that fact to gun owners. Indeed, here’s how Obama’s 2008 rival for the Democratic nomination, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke about guns after another mass killing that year, according to the AP:

 

Clinton told an audience she supported gun rights, two days after a student opened fire on the campus of Northern Illinois University, killing five before turning the gun on himself. Clinton said she believed in getting guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill even as she favored protecting the rights of law abiding gun owners.

“I've gone hunting,” she said. “I know you may not believe it, but it's true. My father taught us to shoot.”
Clinton told reporters later she had once shot a duck in Arkansas, along with “a lot of tin cans, targets and some skeet.”

 

The Pinocchio Test

 The evidence suggests that until Obama had access to a shooting range as president, he never went skeet shooting. He certainly did not speak like a politician who had once used a firearm.

But it is also curious that the White House refuses to provide any documentary evidence that he actually used the shooting range at Camp David, since he claims he uses it “all the time,” or that a presidential friend has not come forward to confirm the president’s comments.

 We live in suspicious times and the president lives in a media fishbowl. That’s the way it is. In the meantime, we do not have enough information to make a ruling one way or the other. We are eager to see a photograph, or hear from someone who saw him at the skeet range, to put this matter to rest.

UPDATE: A reader notes that because Obama said he does skeet shooting “all the time,” perhaps our standard of proof should be higher--such as several photographs. That’s a reasonable point. We have also been asked why we did not immediately award Pinocchios, such as when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made unproven claims about Mitt Romney’s taxes. We try to avoid using “verdict pending,” but in cases of self-aggrandizement, we are willing to be a bit more patient. Obviously, if the White House is not forthcoming with additional evidence, then the claim becomes increasingly doubtful.

UPDATE, Feb. 2: The White House released this photograph of the president at the Camp David skeet range on Aug. 4, 2012. We are pleased the White House has become more forthcoming about this matter, though it does not quite answer the questions concerning the president’s “all the time” language. What do readers think? (Also, given some of the controversy this column generated, we refer you to a negative critique that appeared on Mediaite, which certainly reflects the views of a number of readers who are upset that we thought this was even an issue.)

UPDATE: As one might expect, there is a vast divide on this, with some readers upset that we did not immediately change our ruling because the president released a photo, as we had requested in our original column. We try not to make snap judgements, but readers argued we had moved the goal posts. Well, a case could be made that we had. (See first update.)

We certainly appreciate all of the commentary we received on this column. Many readers initially were upset that we did not immediately award Pinocchios, but now a new wave of readers has condemned us for even thinking this was worthy of serious inquiry. On the last point, we respectively disagree. All statements by public figures are subject to scrutiny. The president made an unexpected claim, and for nearly a week the White House refused to back it up.

So we now have a photo, a news report quoting an anonymous source that the president participated in a Marine guard competition and a news report quoting Obama that he has practiced with the Secret Service. The issue is settled, and we award the president a Geppetto Checkmark.

 

Geppetto Checkmark





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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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