The New York Times Published: April 3, 2013
DENVER — As his gun control legislation struggled back in Washington, President Obama pleaded on Wednesday for understanding from the opposing forces of a debate that has grown polarized since the December massacre of 20 young children in Connecticut.
Speaking at a police academy here, Mr. Obama blamed absolutists on both sides of the gun issue for refusing to listen to each other. He urged rural gun owners and urban mothers to imagine having the opposite perspective on the need for weapons and the damage they can do.
“That’s a start, right?” Mr. Obama said, flanked by police officers and some family members of victims of mass shootings. “If we start listening to each other, we should be able to get something done.”
Mr. Obama’s trip here was an attempt to resuscitate support for his gun-control legislation and press Congress on the issue before it returns to the capital next week. The White House choice of Colorado for the event was meant to add urgency to the president’s message: The state has experienced two of the worst mass shootings in American history, in 1999 at Columbine High School and last summer at a movie theater in Aurora. Mr. Obama spoke not far from the Aurora theater, where 12 people were gunned down.
The president repeated his call for what he termed “common-sense” gun measures, especially an expanded background check system for gun purchases. He said opponents of such measures had “ginned-up fears” about the government in an attempt to spook lawmakers and their constituents.
“The government is us,” Mr. Obama said. “These officials are elected by you.”
He waved toward the assembled officers and local politicians and added, “We’ve got to get past some of the rhetoric that gets perpetuated, that breaks down trust, that’s so over the top that it just shuts down all discussion.”
In contrast to some of his earlier, more emotional remarks about the impact of gun violence, the president portrayed the debate as one of a principled difference that needs to be bridged. To emphasize that point, he related a conversation with his wife, Michelle, after a day of campaigning in rural Iowa. He said Mrs. Obama told him that if she lived on a remote farm in Iowa, she would probably want to own a gun.
“Sometimes, we are so divided between rural and urban, the two sides just talk past one another,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
In Washington, the Senate had been scheduled to begin debating gun control legislation next week, but voting there may be delayed as Democrats who control the chamber continue to seek Republican support. They are also still trying to convince some wavering Democrats from rural and Western states.
Colorado, which has had a long history of support for gun rights even as it has become more supportive of Democratic candidates, is the kind of place where the president and gun control advocates are looking for converts. Mr. Obama acknowledged the state’s support for the Second Amendment in his remarks, but argued that Colorado’s experience with Columbine and Aurora made it possible to embrace both gun control and gun rights.
“There doesn’t have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights,” the president said. “I’ve gotten stacks of letters from proud gun owners, whether they’re for sport, or protection, or collection, who tell me how deeply they cherish their rights and don’t want them infringed upon — but they still want us to do something to stop the epidemic of gun violence.”
The president’s decision to appear with police officers at the academy here was intended to put on display the law enforcement community’s support for tougher gun laws. It is police officers, Mr. Obama said, who are “often the first to see the terrible consequences of gun violence — lives lost, families broken, communities irrevocably changed.”
But not all police officers back the president’s agenda. The Denver Post reported that one officer asked the city’s ethics board to review Mr. Obama’s appearance at the academy, saying that the training facility was not supposed to be used for political purposes. The paper reported that the ethics panel does not meet until later this month.