Obama Pleads for Empathy on Guns

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves.

The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides to cultivate some empathy. Here's an excerpt:

Part of the reason it's so hard to get this done is because both sides of the debate sometimes don't listen to each other. The people who take absolute positions on these issues, on both sides, sometimes aren't willing to concede even an inch of ground.

And so one of the questions we talked about was, how do you build trust? How do you rebuild some trust? And I told the story about two conversations I had. The first conversation was when Michelle came back from doing some campaigning out in rural Iowa. And we were sitting at dinner, and she had been to like a big county, a lot of driving out there, a lot of farmland. And she said, if I was living out in a farm in Iowa, I'd probably want a gun, too. If somebody just drives up into your driveway and you're not home—you don't know who these people are and you don't know how long it's going to take for the sheriffs to respond. I can see why you'd want some guns for protection. That's one conversation.

I had another conversation just a couple of months ago with a mom from Chicago—actually, Evanston, Illinois—whose son had been killed in a random shooting. And she said, you know, I hate it when people tell me that my son was shot because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in the right place. He was on his way to school. He wasn't in the wrong place. He was exactly where he was supposed to be.

Now, both those things are true. And sometimes we're so divided between rural and urban, and folks whose hunting is part of their lives and folks whose only experience with guns is street crime. And the two sides just talk past one another. And more than anything, what I want to just emphasize is there are good people on both sides of this thing, but we have to be able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. If you're a hunter, if you're a sportsman—if you have a gun in your house for protection—you've got to understand what it feels like for that mom whose son was randomly shot.

And if you live in an urban area and you're worried about street crime, you've got to understand what it might be like if you grew out on a ranch and your dad had been taking you hunting all your life. And we had a couple of sportsmen in our conversation today, and I thought one of them said something very important. He said, all my experiences with guns have been positive, but I realize that for others, all their experiences about guns have been negative. Well, that's a start, right? If we start listening to each other, then we should be able to get something done that's constructive. We should be able to get that done.

As I said, when Obama talks this way, he's doing it with the awareness that there's political benefit to be had from appearing to be the reasonable one in an argument. Nevertheless, when was the last time you heard Republican leaders—on the gun issue or any other—talk sympathetically about the liberal perspective and say that it's worthy of respect? And if we're talking about compromise, we should keep in mind that Obama has already compromised from his original position. A new assault-weapons ban? Gone. A ban on high-capacity magazines? Dropped. All that's left is universal background checks, something almost everyone except a tiny group of extremists supports.

Asking people to put themselves in the shoes of those with whom they disagree may or may not be the most effective political strategy. And few people may take him up on it. But it's still good advice.

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