08172017Headline:

In Policy-Heavy Speech, Obama Appeals to Emotion on Guns

By MICHAEL D. SHEARIf there is one moment that is sure to be remembered from President Obama‘s State of the Union address on Tuesday, it will probably be his repeated demands for a Congressional vote on behalf of the victims of gun violence.

In an otherwise wonky speech filled with statistics and policy prescriptions, Mr. Obama’s appeal for tougher gun laws was a raw demonstration of the rhetorical power of emotion. Ignoring for a moment the legislative logistics of the gun debate, the president singled out the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenage girl who was shot and killed last month in Chicago.

“They deserve a vote,” he said as the cameras were trained on their grim faces and applause in the House chamber swelled. “They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.”

Sensing the impact of the moment, Mr. Obama made the most of speechwriting that was consciously different from the rest of his hour-long address. For a moment, Mr. Obama sounded more as if he were at a pulpit in a church than at the dais in the House.

“The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence –- they deserve a simple vote,” he said, his voice rising. “They deserve a simple vote.”

Key Democratic senators from rural states are still wary of supporting limits on guns that will anger their constituents in elections next year. Republicans in the House are skeptical at best. And the National Rifle Association continues to vow political retribution against lawmakers who restrict guns or ammunition.

In Congress, few members of either party appear to believe that a ban on the manufacture or sale of assault weapons will pass. Many say the best bets for new gun laws this year may be an expansion of criminal background checks for gun purchases and a new federal gun trafficking law to block criminal purchases.

Mr. Obama himself noted only that “senators of both parties are working together” on some of those measures. And he said that police chiefs were urging passage of new laws because they were “tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.”

But the rest of his comments on guns were about anything but policy, driven in part by what he conceded in the speech was something of a personal connection to Ms. Pendleton, who had performed as a majorette at Mr. Obama’s inauguration last month.

“A week later,” he said of the 15-year-old girl, “she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”

Whenever Mr. Obama has harnessed the power of emotion during his presidency, it has been on an issue that hit close to home, usually in ways that somehow related to his two daughters.

The president was visibly angry in the hours after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., late last year. The thought that his own children might have been victims of such violence brought him to tears and shaped the way he responded publicly. Earlier, Mr. Obama’s blunt comments on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager in Florida, included a reference to being a father.

“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

In the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Mr. Obama once again tapped into his own emotion — and the emotion of the millions watching his address on television — in the hopes of pushing his gun control agenda forward.

He acknowledged that “this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence.” But he suggested that “this time is different.”

That remains to be seen. But that part of his speech will no doubt be remembered either way.

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