Barack Obama today performed what has become a common ritual in his term in office: the president comes to the White House press room to deliver solemn remarks upon the occasion of a mass shooting, trying to channel Americans’ emotions and bring whatever measure of healing he can.

But — in remarks that came shortly after police apprehended Dylann Storm Roof, the suspected killer of nine people in a South Carolina church — he also did something bound to get criticism from his political opponents: he talked, frankly if briefly, about the context that has led him to have to make these statements so often. Here’s part of what he said:

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and for healing.
“But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it’d be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.
“And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

I promise you that on conservative talk radio, on Fox News, and in many other places, Obama will be condemned roundly for “politicizing” a tragedy. But what do we really mean when we use that word, and why is it supposed to be wrong? It would of course be inappropriate to to say, “This shows why you should vote for my party,” because that would mean that the politician in question is trying to milk people’s pain and suffering for political advantage. That has certainly happened before, after all different kinds of tragedies.

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But the “political” encompasses much more than the partisan, and when something terrible happens, there may be no better time to discuss the substantive issues it raises, just as the aftermath of a storm is the best time to talk about disaster preparedness and the wake of a bridge collapse is the right time to debate the state of our infrastructure. This particular incident brings up many issues we should be discussing more — not only the relentless toll of gun violence, but also racism and the reality of terrorism. Yes, terrorism — from what we know at the moment, it seems clear that this was a terrorist attack by any definition. This event is a reminder that the threat Americans face from home-grown right-wing terrorists is far more serious than the threat from foreign jihadists.

And let’s be clear: this applies to both sides — right and left. If conservatives want to seize on this moment to argue that the law should permit people to take their guns into more places, such as churches, so people can defend themselves in these types of situations, then by all means they should argue that. I might disagree with them, but there’s nothing wrong with them advancing their own solutions to the problem when it shows itself.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if South Carolina legislator proposed a bill to loosen the state’s gun laws even further in response to this shooting. As it is, South Carolina’s laws on guns have been fashioned with the goal of putting as many firearms in as many hands in as many places as possible. Today’s edition of the Charleston Post & Courier was delivered with a sticker advertising “Ladies’ Night” at a local gun shop. (According to the suspect’s uncle, he received a .45 caliber handgun for his 21st birthday a couple of months ago.)

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One couldn’t help but sense a fatalism in Obama’s remarks on guns, that even as he said “it is in our power to do something about it,” he didn’t exactly communicate optimism that something will be done. After all, since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, some blue states have tightened their gun laws, but in many others, gun laws have been loosened, as Republican legislators rush to make it as easy as possible to get a gun, take it wherever you please, and use it whenever you feel threatened.

President Obama was absolutely right in what he said: it isn’t an accident that massacres like this one are extremely rare in other advanced countries that don’t fetishize gun ownership the way we do. Believe it or not, there are violent people in England or Romania or Japan, but without our ready access to guns, the damage they do is limited. And if we aren’t going to talk about it now, when are we going to talk about it?

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