Last night, I went on WhiteHouse.gov and queued up the historic remarks the president had made earlier about the simple gun safety measures he was passing by Executive Order in the face of Congress’ failure to act. It was not for me – I’d taken time from my lunch hour to watch them live – but for my children. Yes, I’m the lax kind of mother who lets them eat at the coffee table in the living room with some Family Feud on in the background instead of at our fancy dining room table. But every once in a while I sneak in something important. And last night was something important.
Yes, they fidgeted a little. But they sat through the entire 40 minute speech. And when the president teared up in sheer frustration and sadness at the thought of all the first graders killed in Sandy Hook Elementary, I felt them grow quiet and still. They were watching. And remembering. I don’t know where they’ll land politically as adults (although I have my suspicions, having grown up with a mother like me), but I do have a hope that they’ll remember this day. Not because CNN made the headline, “President Cries,” which is a throwback to another time when a man in power crying meant something about his manhood. But because public service can be much more than the sideshow they’ve been watching lately as they sidle up to me when I’ve got the news on. Because it can mean caring deeply and carrying the heavy burden of knowing that your decisions – and your failures – can affect hundreds or thousands and maybe even millions of people. If you’re thoughtful, and just a little bit humble – that must weigh heavily on you.
I wanted them to see that, a president both introspective and passionate, frustrated but determined. I wanted them to see a great man struggle with something bigger than himself and talk about it from the heart.
President Obama was right that he will not see a victory on this issue in what’s left of his presidency. In that sense, that part of the speech felt a little like Dr. King’s “I may not get there with you,” I’ve been the to mountaintop” speech. Many of the things we take as truths today – the equality of African Americans, of women, the rights of gay people – were not so certain only a short time ago.
Other issues that seemed insurmountable were changed too. I remember being a young adult and watching people smoke indoors, coming home from a club with my hair saturated in smoke. I remember hearing the prevailing wisdom that there was nothing that could be done to curb smoking deaths, that the smoking lobby was just too strong. I remember people rolling their eyes at the impossible political correctness of those who wanted to ban smoking in buildings. Hippies. Dreamers. I remember how improbable victory seemed when states started suing tobacco producers.
And, yet, somehow, a great sea change occurred. It became a whole lot less hip to smoke, to the point where my kids have asked me, “Wait, hold on, explain it to me again. People thought that looked cool back in your day?” Rates of smoking have declined every year for decades. Where 42.5% of adults smoked in 1965, in 2011 that rate had gone down to 19%, and even lower among students.
History has bent in the right direction every time, sometimes slowly, often painfully, but steadily. Politicians who stood in the schoolhouse door to bar integration were forced to repudiate racism eventually, left behind as they were by popular opinion. So too will it be with the rampant, unregulated gun culture. It too will be relegated to the scrap heap of history one day. Last night’s speech was on in what I’m sure will be many impassioned speeches on the road there. I wanted my children to see and remember. President Obama was telling us that he may not “get there with us,” as our president (but hopefully he will still be involved as a great public figure after he leaves office), but that we’ll get there as a nation.
If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, it’s worth watching beginning to end. It’s one of the most rational and moderate arguments for commonsense gun regulations you’ll hear. Don’t take it from the snippet you heard on the news. Give the whole speech a chance: