Presidents travel to the sites of tragedies to express the solidarity and empathy of a shocked country, to try to offer a modicum of comfort to the relatives of those lost and to galvanize collective grief into a moment of national unity and action.
Biden, whose life has been scarred by family tragedy and the loss of two of his children, was uniquely equipped for the first two requirements of his mission. But given the stuck reality of national politics and the GOP’s fervent opposition to any changes to gun laws, the idea that Uvalde is the moment when a critical mass of public anger overcomes political inertia seems far-fetched.
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“By far the worst day of my life. And I’ll never forget that day. I can replay those hours so vividly in my mind and it’s just etched in my mind,” Alonzo said.
Ellie would have turned 10 next Saturday.
Trump pivots from mourning to politics
While the President’s power may be limited, he did his emotional duty and more Sunday, spending three hours with bereaved families on Sunday afternoon. At one point, with the first lady by his side, he poignantly embraced Mandy Gutierrez, the principal of Robb Elementary School, next to a growing pile of flowers at an impromptu memorial.
Ex-President Donald Trump made no such journey, choosing instead to cement his standing with GOP base voters at a time when his total control over his own movement is being questioned ahead of a possible 2024 White House campaign.
“Each precious young soul that was taken is an incomprehensible loss,” Trump said, but quickly pivoted to politics, lashing out at Biden and other Democrats for raising the issue of gun safety overhauls after massacres in Texas and earlier this month in Buffalo, New York, both of which were conducted by 18-year-olds with legally bought semi-automatic weapons.
He argued that it was not fair for law-abiding gun owners to be deprived of such weapons because of the actions of “sick and demonic” attackers. He proposed more guns in schools to keep kids safe and for the turning of school buildings into fortresses.
And Trump spelled out the argument that even small reforms are a ruse to confiscate Americans’ guns, points often used by the NRA and other conservatives.
“Once they get the first step, they’ll take the second step, the third, the fourth, and then you’ll have a whole different look at the Second Amendment,” Trump said.
The notion that even horrific carnage like that which unfolded last week in Texas must never diminish the magnitude of the freedom of Americans to own high-powered weapons of war resonates in red, more rural states usually represented by Republicans, where Trump remains highly popular. It also helps explains why even those GOP senators who might be willing to take modest steps to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of killers find it such a tough vote and why it’s hard to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to pass major legislation — a function of Senate rules that even some moderate Democrats are not willing to entertain changing.
One Republican who is shifting his position is Rep. Adam Kinzinger. The Illinois congressman said he was now open to a ban on AR-15 rifles following a flurry of mass shootings.
“Look, I have opposed a ban, you know, fairly recently. I think I’m open to a ban now. It’s going to depend on what it looks like because there’s a lot of nuances on what constitutes, you know, certain things,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Bash on “State of the Union” when asked if he still opposed “a ban on the kind of assault weapons that were used in the shooting.”
Kinzinger, however, is hardly a representative sample of the GOP since he has freed himself from party orthodoxy by breaking with Trump — including over his election fraud lies. He has decided not to run for reelection in the fall and is therefore no longer beholden to GOP activists who would consider his comment as heresy.
But the argument that any gun restrictions would unacceptably infringe the rights of law-abiding gun owners is inherently a political one. While the Constitution says that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed, it does not state that Americans have the right to have any weapon of their choice, especially those that fire at a rate of lethality that the founders could never have imagined. And the campaign against tightening gun laws prioritizes the rights of gun owners over those of innocent victims, like those in Texas who last week had the right to life destroyed in an instant.
So entrenched are these positions that the sense of helplessness in the face of repeated massacres seems unlikely to dissipate quickly. It’s easy to imagine Biden and the first lady appearing at yet another vigil for victims of mass carnage soon. For the President, doing “something” might be impossible.