Observers billed Obama's speech here in the Twin Cities Monday afternoon as the first stop for a White House road show promoting gun control legislation, but the event's tone, its location, and, yes, even its content signal that the White House has chosen a circuitous route in pursuit of its goals. The goals themselves have changed, too, as the White House shifts our attention away from the specific horror of Sandy Hook to the more mundane living nightmare of daily gun violence.
The White House told reporters that the visit would highlight the strides Minneapolis has made in reducing youth violence – this alone shows an unremarked-on, easy change of lanes, in terms of goals. Minnesota has seen two school shootings in the past decade, including one that ended the lives of ten people, including the shooter; but neither the president nor the White House press team brought them into the conversation.
This makes total sense – you can do something about the violence that shook Minneapolis in the early 2000s. As terrified as we all were by Sandy Hook, the fact is that school shootings are not just a small (vanishingly small, statistically) part of the gun violence that takes place every day in America, but they are also almost impossible to prevent.
This is the one rhetorical point I am happy to grant the National Rifle Association: murderous, unstable criminals who want to commit violent acts probably will find a way to do so, no matter what laws you enact. I'm not sure how you get to "and thus gun laws aren't worth passing" from there – but you can move, more logically, to focusing on the kind of violence that government and civic action may prevent, and what action can be taken to limit the violence that inevitably stems from accepting guns as a part of society.
The White House and other gun control advocates acknowledged that reality pretty quickly: as nice as a mental health registry and background checks sound, the real muscle of federal gun control has always been in the assault weapons ban and limits on ammunition … ideas that have embedded in them the assumption that people will buy guns and shoot them no matter what else you do. No one likes to admit that the best hope of federal gun control is harm reduction; in focusing on the success in Minneapolis, the White House has found a way to push the conversation beyond that. And that is, in part, because gun control has played almost no role in the way the city has managed to cut youth violence – as measured by arrests and prison population – almost in half.
Indeed, in the city's 28-page "Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis," guns are mentioned just nine times. Of the blueprint's 34 recommendations for action, just one addresses gun control – and it talks about "gun laws" in the same breath as "community values around the acceptance of guns".
There's a simple reason that the city didn't approach gun violence as a legislative issue: it can't. In Minnesota, as in most states, municipalities can't regulate guns. And Minnesota – despite whatever image you may have of Garrison Keillor-lookalikes toting canvas shopping bags and not shotguns – loves its guns. We have liberal "concealed carry" laws (you can possess a loaded gun on your person in public areas); and the state legislator passed (though the governor vetoed) a "stand your ground" law that would have allowed gun owners to "protect themselves" anywhere they stood, not just in their homes.
Outside the Twin Cities, Democratic legislators compete with Republicans for NRA endorsements, and the strength of the state's pro-gun ethos can be measured not by how much the organization participates in state politics, but how little: they don't have to agitate against gun control because so few legislators want it to begin with. The NRA spent just $5,240 in Minnesota last year.
In its pursuit of a peaceful city, Minneapolis (and St Paul) had to do an end run around the direct action of taking guns out of people's hands. Activists instead sought to put other things in their hands: almost all of the civic intervention (pdf) on youth violence has been in the form of outreach, community enrichment, and mentoring for those at risk of participating in violent crime, with rehabilitation and support for those who have already become trapped by it.
On the one hand, the White House's embrace of an approach such as Minneapolis' is great news for the NRA – and a sour admission by Obama. It means that the administration has all but thrown up its hands in pursuit of congressional action on gun control. Step away from the bunker; no one will come for your guns. Buzzfeed, among others, noted the president's softer pedaling of the assault weapons ban from the podium today. Indeed, his appeal seemed more plaintive, even resigned:
"If there is even one thing we can do – if there is even one life we can save – we've got an obligation to try."
On the other hand, if the White House throws its weight fully behind the approach that's worked in Minneapolis, the National Rifle Association has more global problems. If the administration can get traction for this approach, then using the government to facilitate a culture where violence isn't the first option, isn't even considered an answer, is a deeper blow to gun ownership than any ban.
This approach isn't about taking guns away, but people giving them up.