Why Obama’s gun control efforts will fail

In the US, guns are far more than weapons – they are ideological talismans.

President Barack Obama wipes tears from his eyes as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington [AP]
US President Barack Obama wipes tears from his eyes as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington [AP]

The rise in gun violence, and its most horrific episodes, brought US President Barack Obama to tears on Tuesday afternoon. Flanked by the mothers of Jordan Davis and Chris Martinez, amid the memory of other victims of gun violence, Obama delivered an urgent call and outlined an executive plan for greater gun control. 

Obama’s tears were every bit as memorable as his words. While listing the string of mass shootings that unfolded in recent years, Obama paused when he recollected the 20 schoolchildren gunned down by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. 

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama revealed, in a rare moment of presidential candor and emotion. As if speaking directly to the segment of Americans that associate rising gun violence with easy access to arms.

Emotional Obama unveils plan to cut gun violence

White privilege

Nearly 2,600 miles from Washington, DC, in Burns, Oregon, stood the opposition. Led by Ammon Bundy, 100 men brandishing guns and holding a contrary stance on arms dominated the headlines

Hailing from rural, predominantly white spaces, Bundy and his band of gun-toting protesters view the Second Amendment as the cornerstone of citizenship. The very marker of freedom that, if any way diminished or circumscribed by the federal government, justified violent response.

For Americans living within or on the margins of cities ravaged by gun violence, Obama’s plan could not come too soon. Yet, for factions from remote townships who romanticise about 18th century-styled militias, and view gun ownership as the fundamental constitutional right, Obama’s speech – and tears – are not a call to disarm but rather, a call to take on even more arms.

READ MORE: Oregon standoff and a clear case of white privilege 

A series of rifts divide the United States and its people. The election of Obama in 2008 delivered two distinct messages with regard to race – the nation’s most embedded and turbulent faultline. For conservatives, Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office marked the opening of a “post-racial America” – evidence that racism was a relic of the past. Or, for blatant racists, the beginning of “white America’s end“.

Firearms for sale at a gun store in California [REUTERS]Firearms for sale at a gun store in California [REUTERS]

For progressives, however, the election of Obama marked a historic symbolic achievement, not meaningful structural reform. The arrival of the first black president intersected with the erosion of affirmative action, widening wealth gaps between black and white Americans, and during Obama’s second term, the “gutting of the Voting Rights Act” – intensifying voter suppression in predominantly black districts

The racial divide

The racial divide in the US mirrors its spatial divide. Americans of colour, victimised by gun violence inflicted by citizens and police, are largely concentrated in cities. These are the disproportionate spaces where the vast majority of mass shootings take place.

The racial divide in the US mirrors its spatial divide.

Far from US cities, in rural towns and remote and townships, is where the Second Amendment holds both constitutional and spiritual significance. These isolated, overwhelmingly white working-class spaces spawn the likes of Cliven Bundy, Jon Ritzheimer of anti-Muslim protests fame, and the majority of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) rabid base. 

In the US, guns are far more than weapons. They are ideological talismans, and depending on which side one stands, symbols of either individual liberty or systematic violence. Republican candidates, most notably Donald Trump, have capitalised on this divide.

By stoking xenophobic and Islamophobic fears, Republican frontrunners have issued a call to arms against “illegal immigrants”, Muslims, and “thugs”, playing on race and racism to embolden NRA backers and militants. 

Disarming dangerous elements

However, for Charleston, South Carolina, Aurora, Colorado, and Obama’s hometown of Chicago, gun control does not mean “using both hands” – but disarming dangerous elements within the community. And just as importantly, those looming on the fringe.

READ MORE: A demonstration of white privilege

Like Dylann Roof, whose hell-bent racism moved him to execute nine black churchgoers in Charleston. Or Craig Stephen Hicks, who shot and killed three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill in February 2015.


And the 100 armed militiamen in Oregon, who view black, brown and Muslim Americans as transgressors and terrorists.

For communities ravaged by mass shootings, gun control does not diminish freedom, it diminishes danger. Federal monitoring of gun sale controls will lessen the chances of innocent teenagers, such as Jordan Davis, being gunned down.

Obama’s reforms also mitigate access to guns in gang-ridden communities, where youth, residents and other innocents have fallen victim to direct and stray bullets.

“We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world,” Obama pleaded, before firing at the NRA and their textual interpretation of the Second Amendment, adding more fodder to the gun control standoff in the US, and the deepening the racial, spatial and ideological divides that lay beneath it.  

Khaled A Beydoun is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.