President Obama Mourns Aurora — and Misses an Opportunity

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Obama observes a moment of silence for the shooting in Aurora, Colo., at an event in Fort Myers, Fla., on July 20, 2012

Before the dead were buried, and before the killer appeared in court, President Obama arrived in Aurora, Colo., on Sunday to grieve. He met with families of the victims and spoke eloquently about the sorrows inflicted on the community. He was somber and respectful, which is the sum of what we have come to expect from elected leaders in times of tragedy.

There is a well-thumbed script for politicians who are required to react to mass murder: a mix of paternalism, prayer and platitudes that allow leaders to speak at some length without offering any answers. Obama is skilled at these ritual displays of public mourning. It’s one of the few talents Republicans freely acknowledge in him. Last year, when a Congresswoman was shot in the head by a schizophrenic gunman in Tucson, Ariz., Obama gave a stirring speech that helped quell the raft of public recriminations. This time his response, as well as that of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, was sober. “Appropriate,” the pundits declared. But these statements were more notable for what they didn’t say than for what they did.

(MORE: Colorado Movie-Theater Shooting: Remembering the Victims)

Obama didn’t mention that the alleged shooter had spent two months legally stockpiling a fearsome arsenal — four guns, 6,000 rounds of ammunition purchased online, head-to-toe body armor and a gas mask. Romney didn’t note that as Massachusetts governor, he had signed a ban on the kind of semiautomatic weapon the Aurora gunman used to murder 12 people. Neither leader mentioned gun laws at all.

What good could come from veering off the gentle clichés and pat expressions of sympathy? The fear of being criticized for politicizing a tragedy has thwarted any possibility of preventing its recurrence. You could argue, as many did, that the political debate should wait until after the nation’s wounds heal. But the truth is that no one seems especially interested in having a debate at all.

That includes Obama, who has actually expanded gun rights by signing bills that allow firearm possession on Amtrak trains and in national parks. In 2010 the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, citing Obama’s “extraordinary silence and passivity,” awarded the President an F on gun control. This while the NRA warns that Obama is prepared to strip away gun rights in a second term. Will the issue elbow its way into the general-election campaign? “We’re taking this day by day. It’s too early to say on the specific policy issues what that will mean,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from Aurora: Aftermath of the Theater Massacre)

On both sides of the aisle, the notion of a legislative solution to the atrocities was flatly rejected. “Unfortunately, I don’t think society can keep sick, demented individuals from obtaining any type of weapon to kill people,” said Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Citing the power of the gun-rights lobby, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, an advocate of the federal assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004, conceded that few Democrats had much appetite for a battle over gun control. “The gun organizations go out to defeat people in states where they can, and they pour a lot of money in, and some people lost office after they voted for the legislation before,” she said.

From the shootings in Littleton and Blacksburg to Binghamton and Fort Hood, we have accepted that the unthinkable is inevitable. Instead of talking about teachable moments, we observe moments of silence. Maybe it’s impossible to prevent every deranged person inclined toward violence from slipping through the cracks. Indeed, the difficulty of sussing out the warning signs was underlined by the carnage in Aurora, where after four days, we’re left without even the vaguest hint of a motive.

But our leaders are not elected to express the kind of defeatism on display from John McCain, who on Sunday opined that since tighter gun laws aren’t foolproof — witness the plight of gun-wary Norway, where a fascist massacred 77 people last summer — there is no cause to try them now. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth, what we can do,” McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “I think we need to look at everything, if that even should be looked at, but to think that somehow gun control is — or increased gun control — is the answer, in my view, that would have to be proved.” McCain noted that the Second Amendment is a constitutional right and a safeguard for a free and law-abiding citizenry. But until he walked into a packed movie theater and shot 70 people, the alleged Colorado killer was a law-abiding citizen too.

(MORE: Trying to Forget Breivik: One Year After the Norway Massacre)

Obama spoke for seven minutes on Friday; Romney for three. “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious,” the President said. He and Romney have observed the niceties the tragedy prescribes — pulling their ads, leashing their attack dogs, putting partisanship on hold. Soon the cease-fire will end and the two candidates for the most powerful office in the world will return to their campaigns of honking buses and Twitter insults.

Instead of initiating a discussion about what we can do to protect ourselves from the next psychopath, Obama on Sunday confined himself to somber words of comfort. He quoted Scripture, commended the community and recounted tales of heroism amid the horror. “Out of this darkness, a brighter day is going to come,” he promised. The speech was pitch-perfect. But it was just a speech. And as Obama said, “words are always inadequate in these kinds of situations.”

We expect our leaders to grieve after a tragedy like Aurora. We no longer expect them to change anything.

PHOTOS: Gun Culture USA