For Obama, it’s per­sonal

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael A. Me­moli­

He calls for a reck­on­ing on guns, this time as he mourns a friend who was among those killed.

WASHINGTON — At a town hall meet­ing in South Carolina this year, Pres­i­dent Obama looked back on the most dif­fi­cult mo­ment of his pres­i­dency — the shoot­ing deaths of 20 chil­dren and six ed­u­ca­tors in the New­town school mas­sacre in Con­necti­cut — and ex­pressed re­gret over his in­abil­ity to en­act stricter gun laws.

It was “the hard­est day of my pres­i­dency,” he said. “And I’ve had some hard days.”

Faced Thurs­day with yet another ma­jor gun crime on Amer­i­can soil, this one at a black church in Charleston, S.C., about 115 miles from where he spoke in March, the nor­mally even-keeled pres­i­dent did not hide his anger.

“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,” he said. “It doesn’t hap­pen in other places with this kind of fre­quency.”

In an eight-minute state­ment in which he was at turns frus­trated and mourn­ful, Obama re­newed his vigor for in­creased lim­its on ac­cess to guns and, as a pres­i­dent near­ing his fi­nal months in of­fice, seemed to feel freer to raise the vex­ing po­lit­i­cal is­sue just hours af­ter learn­ing of the at­tack.

He blamed the shoot­ing on some­one “who wanted to in­flict harm [and] had no prob­lems get­ting their hands on a gun.” He said it was “par­tic­u­larly heart­break­ing” that the vic­tims were gunned down in a place of wor­ship, and de­cried the rate of mass shoot­ings in the U.S. as all too fre­quent. He quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Aides said he in­sisted that he ad­dress the is­sue in per­son — his 14th state­ment as pres­i­dent on a mass shoot­ing.

The shoot­ing in Charleston added two new el­e­ments to the pres­i­dent’s re­ac­tion: a per­sonal and racial con­nec­tion. Obama knew the church pas­tor who was killed; and the Jus­tice Depart­ment is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mas­sacre as a hate crime — the vic­tims were all black and the sus­pect is white.

As a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, Obama had met the Rev. Cle­menta Pinck­ney, who also was a state sen­a­tor, and other mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion. Pinck­ney be­came an Obama sup­porter in that tough 2008 cam­paign, forg­ing a bond with him that “was strong enough to en­dure all the way un­til to­day,” a White House spokesman said.

Obama spoke Thurs­day with the mayor of Charleston to ex­press his con­do­lences, as did Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, who had vis­ited with Pinck­ney last year at a prayer break­fast.

Dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency, shoot­ings — in­clud­ing those at the Con­necti­cut ele­men­tary school, near a col­lege cam­pus in Isla Vista, at the Washington Navy Yard and at a Sikh tem­ple in Wis­con­sin — have brought about cries for leg­isla­tive ac­tion to limit gun sales. Fol­low­ing New­town, a mea­sure in the Se­nate to ex­pand back­ground checks on would-be gun buy­ers fell a hand­ful of votes short of be­ing adopted in what be­came the only sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort to en­act new gun rules at the fed­eral level.

The pres­i­dent, in his visit to South Carolina in March, had lamented that it seemed the car­nage at New­town would have been “enough of a mo­ti­va­tor for us to want to do some­thing about this. And we couldn’t get it done.”

The pres­i­dent has oth­er­wise been re­luc­tant to re­visit the fight for new leg­is­la­tion, as in­tractable a fight as any in Washington, when his in­flu­ence has been needed else­where. But, he said point­edly on Thurs­day, “It is in our power to do some­thing about it.”

Still, he in­di­cated he had lit­tle ex­pec­ta­tion that Congress would act any dif­fer­ently this time.

“The pol­i­tics in this town fore­close a lot of those av­enues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to ac­knowl­edge it,” he said. “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.”

The ap­par­ent racial mo­ti­va­tion to the at­tack was a re­minder, Obama said, of “a dark part of our history.”

The na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent has put greater at­ten­tion this year on is­sues sur­round­ing Amer­ica’s his­toric strug­gle with race. Two days af­ter that March visit to South Carolina, he de­liv­ered an ad­dress in Selma, Ala., that high­lighted progress since scores of blacks try­ing to march to Mont­gomery were beaten back by state troop­ers on Bloody Sun­day there half a cen­tury ago, but he also de­clared that “our march is not yet fin­ished.”

Obama has also been forced to con­front ten­sions high­lighted by a se­ries of en­coun­ters be­tween law en­force­ment and young mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing the deaths of un­armed black men in Fer- gu­son, Mo., and Bal­ti­more that sparked some­times vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions.

Obama said Thurs­day that while racial ha­tred was a threat “to our democ­racy and our ideals,” he was con­fi­dent the re­ac­tion to this latest in­ci­dent “in­di­cates the de­gree to which those old ves­tiges of ha­tred can be over­come.”

He quoted King’s com­ments af­ter the death of four young girls in the 1963 bomb­ing of an Alabama church, say­ing: “Their death says to us that we must work pas­sion­ately and un­re­lent­ingly for the re­al­iza­tion of the Amer­i­can dream.”

Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE AT­TACK hit home for Obama; he knew the pas­tor who was killed.

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