What's Obama Trying to Accomplish with Tonight's "Town Hall" on Guns?

Likely little more than letting a narrow base know he cares, though the implications of more feckless "gun policy" choices might be alarming.


President Obama will be joining CNN's Anderson Cooper for a closed-to-the-public "town hall" event to be aired on CNN tonight at 8 pm eastern. CNN says the whole thing was their idea and that they did the inviting, and promise "the audience would be evenly divided between organizations that support the Second Amendment including NRA members as well as groups that back gun regulation" though the National Rifle Association declined to play a part officially. Seeing what questions that seem to come from an anti-gun-control perspective tonight should be interesting and telling. (Michelle Malkin writes on the history of apparent plants in CNN audiences asking questions.)

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And what will the message be? Obama already laid out the specifics of his new wave of "executive actions" to, he insists, curb the (non-existent) growing epidemic of gun violence (which has shrunk in half in the past 23 years.)

They mostly involve small adjustments in enforcement about who qualifies legally as a gun seller required to conduct background checks, and giving people who care about their right to self-defense more reason to avoid ever getting enmeshed in our mental health system.

He's given no hint he has any fresher ideas to offer, so this is just more showmanship to hit home the point Jacob Sullum made here yesterday: Regardless of how efficacious any of his proposals are, Obama wants you to know again and again that he cares about gun control.

It's conceivable that politically, showing he cares is a lot more valuable than actually doing anything about the problem—especially when doing much about the problem of a tiny percentage of gun owners making the terrible decision to murder is largely outside his legal abilities. (Such acts are against the law already.) He and his administration seem to think the issue resonates, though it's worth remembering that guns are a very low political priority for most Americans.

But guns, and being against them, have become part of the core tribal identity of his party, and likely part of a deliberate cultural game of "problematizing" gun ownership like the culture has done to, say, smokers.

Because after two decades plus that have seen gun homicide cut in half, it's quite unlikely that national policy can do much more about this problem. Indeed we have very little verified knowledge indicating gun policy will positively affect gun deaths or crimes. Obama might not know that, or he might understand just fine that his Party's political fortunes will be buoyed by making people who hate or are uncomfortable with guns know that the Democratic Party is On Their Side anyway.

It may be as well that continuing to insist in such a big and public way that a problem that has been trending hugely downward demands continual strong political action, and continuing to offer meaningless policy solutions, he is greasing that slippery slope he alluded to with his chilling "tomorrow we do more" comment in his presentation Tuesday, pushing the country forward toward the sort of banning and/or confiscations of classes of weapons that we are one Supreme Court justice away from legally permitting.