How Does Obama Want Us to Change?

I have no doubt that the people who assembled at Newtown High School found comfort in President Obama’s words on Sunday night.

But make no mistake (as Obama is so fond of saying). The President didn’t only come to Newtown to pay his respects to those who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday morning. He also came to lecture the nation and to save us from ourselves:

This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try. 

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

So President Obama says we aren’t doing enough and said not once, but twice that we must change. But we must ask how Obama want us to change. Sure he says that he will use his office to engage stakeholders. He also pays lip service to the argument that new laws won’t eliminate evil or senseless acts of violence. But whenever Obama says that inaction isn’t an option you can be sure he wants to do something regardless of whether it actually works or not. Given that he has asked his cabinet to come up with proposals to reduce gun violence (including the possible reinstatement of the ban on assault rifles), can there be any doubt how Obama wants this country to change?

This isn’t to say change shouldn’t come. But it has to be the right kind of change. President Obama can ban guns and assault weapons all he wants. Obama can no more stop gun violence than he can calm the oceans. As I have argued previously, if strict gun control was all it took to stop gun violence, then Chicago should be the safest city in the entire country.

Although the massacres in Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek and now Newtown were horrifying spectacles, many of the homicides we see usually involve only one victim and are often over the most trivial of matters. How often over the past quarter century have we heard about children murdered over their shoes? Just last October, a 12-year-old girl in New Jersey was murdered by two teenaged boys for her BMX bike. If President Obama wants to engage the nation on gun violence then we must come to terms with why so many young people (especially in the inner cities) believe that life is so cheap that they are prepared to take another life over material possessions.

Unless a concerted, day-to-day effort is made to change the attitudes of young people concerning material possessions while instilling the proper values in its place, then President Obama’s efforts will amount to nothing more than a shot in the dark.

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