Two years ago President Obama predicted that when it came to averting mass shootings through gun control, “sooner or later, we are going to get this right.”
But on Thursday — after yet another mass killing, this time at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — a weary Obama seemed to concede that a gun-control solution to the problem would likely come well after he leaves office.
“At some point,” he said, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Obama noted that he has had to issue statements on such killings “too many times” during his presidency. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency,” he said.
Although he suggested that “it is in our power to do something” about gun violence, Obama added quickly, “I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now.”
It was a frank admission of how constrained Obama is on this issue, 6½ years after taking office confident he could transform the country’s political system. In April 2013, Obama said the death of a background checks bill in the Senate was “just round one” in a longer legislative fight; shortly after the president’s statement Thursday, his spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama doesn’t “anticipate Congress moving” on the question of gun control.
There was no call for voters to mobilize and express their outrage at the ballot box, as Obama had urged two years ago. No list of policy recommendations was unveiled. Vice President Biden, standing beside the president, had already overseen 23 executive actions aimed at curtailing the proliferation of weapons in the United States, and there were no more tools left at his disposal.
With 18 months remaining in office, Obama is still hoping to make progress on a handful of agenda items, including climate change and trade. But his inability to pass gun-control legislation — which he identified after a 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., as a test of America’s ability to take care of its children — may rank as his most personal defeat.
And it speaks to the broader question that he and advisers grapple with as time runs out on his presidency: the fact that Obama has fallen short of his initial promise to erase the political divisions that impeded progress on some of the country’s most pressing policy problems.
That the shooter targeted a church that embodied African Americans’ historic struggle for, first, freedom from slavery and then equal rights made the killings even more poignant for the president.
“This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America,” Obama said.
Struggling to contain his emotions at times, a somber Obama spoke of his connection to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney — the church’s pastor, whom he met during his first presidential campaign in 2007 and who was killed Wednesday night.
“There is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship,” Obama said. The congregants, he added, “opened their doors to strangers who might enter a church in search of healing or redemption.”
During his remarks, Obama quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had spoken at the church known as Mother Emanuel decades ago, preaching about how, in the midst of tragedy, “God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.” Still, the president offered no suggestion that this week’s tragedy raised hope for achieving increased gun control.
“But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it,” he said. “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.”