Emoter-in-Chief: Presidential Tears as Argument for Gun Control

I had intended to re-start the blog this year by writing about my 2015 in reading, complete with the pie charts and graphs you would expect from a former political science major. But let’s be honest: Roxane Gay’s list is far more interesting than what I would’ve written.

So let’s turn to something more current: the President’s announcement of his executive action to close gun sale loopholes.

Today, President Barack Obama introduced his executive action for gun control before an audience at the White House. In a speech that ran approximately thirty-six minutes, the President addressed the persistent question of America’s inability to resolve the issues that foment mass public shootings. You can watch the entire video of the President’s speech below.

This is hardly Obama’s first foray into this issue. In December 2015, USA Today compiled video of twelve Obama speeches in response to public shootings, and in each instance Congress failed to act. The best chance for even a menial reform came when two legislators with A+ NRA ratings, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), drafted bipartisan legislation that would have closed gun sale loopholes. The legislation—which required a 60-vote super majority to pass the Senate—died in the chamber when only 54 senators voted in favor of the measure. (Incidentally, Manchin and Toomey were exploring options to re-introduce their legislation in response to the Emanuel A.M.E. shootings in Charleston.)

In his speech, Obama references Manchin and Toomey’s legislation, and he also calls on public statements by prominent Republicans like President George W. Bush and John McCain—all in favor of closing loopholes. Rhetorically, his nod toward bipartisan support for limited gun control measures serves as a better rallying cry than anecdotes and statistics: reducing gun violence, the President argues through these examples, should be a universal political position. Obama specifically calls for requiring background checks regardless of the purchasing site (i.e., Internet, gun show, or traditional store), for licensing all gun sellers regardless of their sale venue, and for prosecuting any and all sellers who refuse to comply with these provisions. It’s a slight reform that stitches shut a loophole, little more. Yet, the President still anticipated the character of the Republican response: they’re trying to take our guns. Writing for NBC News, Marianna Sotomayor and Andrew Rafferty report that GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Dr. Ben Carson have attacked the executive order as a violation of the second amendment.

However, the star moment in the President’s address isn’t his mastery of rhetorical strategies, or even the moment in which he glibly reminds his audience that he’s a constitutional law scholar. Even as I write this blogpost and listen to the radio, the news break on NPR briefly glossed the speech as an unusually “emotional” public address for President Obama. Why? When recalling the elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, the President cried. And this display of affect, amplified by the President’s tone, has lingered with the media as a sign of national grief. (In fact, the biggest headline seems to be “Presidents Cry Too”: See Mic here, NPR here, CNN here, and absurdly mischaracterized as “Tears of Rage” by right-wing Breitbart, here.) If you don’t want to leave this space, I’ve posted below a YouTube video of Obama tearing up, from NBC’s broadcast of the speech.

Casting himself as the Emoter-in-Chief, the President shifts the tenor of the conversation by embodying the collective remorse that the American public should experience in response to these mass shootings. In the moment excerpted above, Obama cries in time to a litany of rights violated by mass public shootings: in particular, the sacrosanct first-amendment rights of (a.) the right to peaceably assemble and (b.) the right to practice one’s own religious beliefs. We should, the President’s tears suggest, be aggrieved that innocent lives were lost in the practice of non-violent Constitutional rights. An individual’s desire to own a firearm should not supersede the collective rights of those individuals to safely watch movies in public theaters, or to feel secure in their houses of worship. As a national symbol, the President cries, and his diction matches: we see the universal need made particular and specific through his emotional response and the anecdotes he calls upon. When the President pauses to daub at his eyes, he enacts that moment of pause, in which we face the violence that has rocked our communities and must still forge ahead.

In a composition class, I would generally tell my students that this appeal to emotions (called pathos) is the weakest of the rhetorical appeals. But Obama tries the other modes of persuasion in this speech; he appeals to a national character of bipartisanship and the morality of gun control (both examples of ethos, the appeal to ethics/character), and he calls upon statistical evidence about the benefits of gun control legislation in states like Connecticut (logos, or the appeal to reason). What other tools does Obama have, when pro-gun activists have jettisoned rationality and tacked their agenda to fear-mongering? (Business Insider even reports that the NRA’s “guns equal self-defense” argument is largely bunk, and yet, as Scott Horsley writes for NPR, gun manufacturing and gun sales increased in 2015, in part because of the NRA’s fop logic.)

“Emoter-in-Chief” is not the sort of title that hawkish pro-gun Americans may want for their President. But the most affective (and effective) moments in the President’s speech occur when he allows himself to express and display those tears of national sentiment. Watching the President, I was reminded of Commissioner Jim Gordon’s monologue at the end of 2009’s The Dark Knight: Batman may not be the hero Gotham City deserves or wants, but he’s the hero that Gotham needs. And this is the President America needs in the gun control debate: Emoter-in-Chief, yes, but immune to the fear-mongering that has, as Obama said, taken Congress—but not America—hostage.

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