On his 51st birthday last August, President Obama hit the links with a group of buddies and then flew by helicopter to Camp David. There, he changed into jeans and picked up a shotgun. And then, before it got too dark, he started a round of clay target shooting.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t think this was headline-worthy news. But on Saturday morning, the White House released and promoted a photograph of Obama shooting skeet at the presidential retreat in Maryland.
White House aides were trying to end a growing distraction just as the president plans to make a fresh push to rally public support behind his ambitious agenda to tighten gun laws, traveling to Minnesota on Monday.
The photo, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza, depicts a sunglasses-wearing Obama firing what appears to be a Browning Citori 725, the shotgun wedged against his left shoulder, a pillow of white smoke emerging from the barrel.
The photo was published a week after Obama claimed in an interview with the New Republic that he routinely shoots skeet at Camp David. The surprising assertion — Obama’s golfing and basketball hobbies are far better known — instantly stirred the political zeitgeist.
Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, was asked for evidence in the White House briefing room. “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart poked fun at the president’s apparent hobby. Gun-rights activists dismissed it, and some were skeptical that Obama was a routine skeet shooter.
A Republican congresswoman even challenged the president to a shooting contest.
“I’m sure they released the photo because there were folks raising questions about his answer, and those questions are a silly distraction in the midst of a serious debate,” David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to Obama, said in an e-mail.
“I know him pretty well. He doesn’t embellish,” Axelrod added. “If he says he’s done some shooting up there on occasion, I’m sure he has. He’s not a hunter or marksman and doesn’t pretend to be.”
The White House did not say how often Obama has gone shooting.
In the interview with the New Republic, Obama was asked if he had ever shot a gun.
“Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” he said.
Asked if his whole family goes shooting, Obama replied: “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.”
But while the White House made clear Saturday that the president has shot skeet at least once, the release of the photo seemed more likely to inflame passions around the issue than douse them.
Current and former advisers to Obama compared skeptics of Obama’s skeet-shooting prowess to a group of conservatives, known as birthers, who cast doubt on whether Obama was born in the United States and kept exerting pressure until the president released a long-form birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii.
“Attn skeet birthers. Make our day — let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” David Plouffe, Obama’s senior adviser until last week, wrote on Twitter early Saturday. Later in the day, he wrote, “Day made. The skeet birthers are out in full force in response to POTUS pic. Makes for most excellent, delusional reading.”
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser, coined a term for those who didn’t believe Obama had gone shooting: “skeeters.”
On the other side, Obama’s critics in the gun-rights community were not impressed by the photo.
“One picture does not erase a lifetime of supporting every gun ban and every gun-control scheme imaginable,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, regarded the whole episode as a sideshow.
“If that’s something the president enjoys doing, God bless him,” he said. “I’m no more offended by this photo than by one showing him throwing a Frisbee.”
The White House would not confirm what firearm Obama used. But gun dealers and enthusiasts said that from the picture, it appeared to be a Browning Citori, a model popular among those involved in the sport.
The “over and under” design features two barrels, one on top of the other, allowing the gun to hold and fire two shotgun shells.
The smoke in the photo is emanating from air vents in the barrel, a feature known as “porting” that reduces recoil shock and allows for steadier aim.
Gun dealers said the shotgun appeared to be a stock model of the Browning, which retails for $2,000 to $3,000. According to the Browning Web site, some of the Citori models are made in a left-handed version, with a slight bend near the butt — though it was not apparent from the photo whether the left-handed president was using one of those.
“It looked like he was shooting regular American skeet,” said Michael Hampton Jr., head of the National Sporting Clays Association. “It’s a gun that is used for this discipline — a good middle-of-the-road gun, very functional and very standard.”
The sport originated early in the 20th century when hunters were looking for ways to practice and improve their marksmanship.
Over time, the activity developed as a sport of its own. There are several variations, all involving a shooter attempting to down a roughly three-ounce clay disk that has been launched from a spring-loaded machine.
In skeet shooting — the activity the White House said Obama was pursuing at Camp David — the clay targets are launched at different heights and travel across the shooter’s field of vision.
Hampton said that even novices can get quick satisfaction. In a 100-target session, he said even beginners will hit 25 or 30 targets and quickly develop 50-50 proficiency.