Obama’s Epic Failure to Curb Gun Violence

While President Obama is playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard, disinterred coffins are floating down the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

More than 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and more than 11,000 have been left homeless by the worst flooding to hit the state since Hurricane Katrina.

CNN’s Don Lemon observed this week that while George W. Bush was criticized for only flying over the flood waters during Katrina’s aftermath, Obama couldn’t even be bothered to leave the golf course to comfort Americans in crisis.

Many have praised Obama’s cool detachment as a sign of steady leadership. But it is more appropriate to characterize it as simply an indifference to the suffering of others. The truth of the matter is that Obama has been blithely watching coffins float by his entire presidency.

That is certainly the case when it comes to the civilian deaths — which include many children — caused by U.S. drone strikes in a half-dozen foreign countries. But even more pronounced, and morbidly ironic, is Obama’s failure to fight the nationwide epidemic of inner-city gun violence epitomized by his own hometown of Chicago.

In December 2008, the president-elect was asked by an interviewer from the Chicago Tribune whether he would return to his adopted hometown, perhaps on his summer vacations.

“My Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago,” Obama responded, referring to George H.W. Bush’s traditional vacation home in Maine. “Our friends are here. Our family is here. And so we are going to try to come back here as often as possible … we’re going to try to get back here at least once every six weeks or couple months.”

Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii, not Chicago, turned out to be Obama’s Kennebunkport. To the extent that he has visited Chicago at all, the infrequent visits have typically been overnight stays without his family.

In 2009, one local newspaper compared Obama’s abandonment of Chicago to a guy who leaves his high school girlfriend behind when he moves on to college. The metaphor would be more fitting if the girlfriend had been left behind on life support, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.

During the first full weekend of Obama’s last presidential vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, there were 52 shootings in Chicago, nine of them fatal. During the first three months of this year, shootings in Chicago had increased by 88 percent compared to the same time last year. According to statistics compiled by the Tribune, at least 1,206 children under the age of 17 have been shot since September 2011. At least 114 have been killed.

When viewed through the prism of unrealized potential, Obama’s legacy will be that of a failed president. He possessed all of the skills to become a truly transformational leader, but couldn’t live up to his true potential.

Frustrated by his inability to pass gun control legislation, Obama failed to launch a campaign against the root causes of the gun violence that has eaten away at the souls of poor black communities. He didn’t understand that gun control could never be a panacea for the cultural pathology that leads to gun violence in the first place.

Obama failed to invest himself personally or embrace the grand gestures necessary to launch a movement against the culture of violence that has turned cities like Chicago into war zones. He lacked the vision or the will to do anything about it.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi sought to end bloody religious riots in India between Hindus and Muslims through the sheer will of his principles. He vowed to fast until the violence stopped. In a 2007 essay for Time, “Remembering Why Gandhi Starved Himself,” Ishaan Tharoor described how “Gandhi broke his fast as weeping rioters laid their machetes at his feet.”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, plays golf. And young black Americans continue to die on the streets of Chicago.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York.