Opinion: Gun divide is a hard target

Philadelphia Inquirer

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday, Feb. 7:

It’s been quite a while, fortunately, since anyone was caned into unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate. These days, politicians who take up arms tend to present a greater risk to themselves than to others (Dick Cheney furnished a notable exception). One thinks of Michael Dukakis’ helmeted head poking out of a tank, or Mitt Romney’s threat to lay waste, Yosemite Sam-style, to “small varmints.”

President Obama recently blasted his way into this ragtag posse when he told the New Republic that, heck, he shoots skeet out at Camp David “all the time” — an ill-chosen colloquialism that provoked a chorus of demands for proof of his frequently pursued but newly disclosed hobby. So now we have photographic evidence that the president is a scourge not only of terrorist masterminds, but also of clay targets.

Pictured clad in a polo shirt tucked into his dad jeans behind a puff of gun smoke, the shooter in chief looks like he would be more comfortable brandishing a 9-iron or a Frisbee rather than a shotgun. Indeed, he seems more natural in another Camp David photo that captured him wielding a squirt gun.

The head of the National Skeet Shooting Association (yes, there is one!) questioned the timing of the release of the photo as well as Obama’s shooting stance. One Republican lawmaker even challenged the president to a skeet-shooting contest (not to be held on the cliffs of Weehawken, we hope). A National Rifle Association representative and other critics were even less charitable.

Awkwardly or not, though, Obama deserves credit for attempting to defuse the culture-war aspect of the gun debate even as he seeks to craft a policy response to gun violence. In a more convincing passage of the New Republic interview, Obama addressed one important aspect of that divide.

“I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations,” he said. “And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake. Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas. … And that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes.”

Having once infamously belittled rural Pennsylvanians as bitterly clinging “to their guns or religion,” Obama may have come to appreciate this cultural chasm more than most. His efforts to bridge it are bound to be ungainly, but they are in the right spirit. More of us on both sides of the issue should respond in kind.