WASHINGTON — If the gun debate gets any more juvenile, the participants will need strollers.
The National Rifle Association took the first shot in this latest pursuit of the puerile. Not only did it release a political ad late Tuesday about the president’s children — a bipartisan taboo of long standing — but it made Sasha and Malia’s security the subject of a brutal attack on President Obama.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” asks the NRA’s male announcer. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” The ad goes on to call him an “elitist hypocrite” who wants only his own children to be safe.
“Repugnant and cowardly,” said Jay Carney, Obama’s spokesman. Indeed, the word “despicable” would not go too far in this case.
Unfortunately, Obama would have had more standing to denounce the NRA’s childishness if he hadn’t been about to launch a children’s crusade of his own in the rollout of his gun-violence initiative Wednesday morning. The White House packed the audience and the stage with kids, some of whom the president singled out during his speech. His aides even released handwritten letters children sent, such as:
Dear, Mr. President,
My name is Taejah. I am ten years old. I am writing you to ask you to STOP gun violence. I am very sad about the children who lost their lives in Conn. So, I thought I would write to you to STOP gun violence. Thank you Mr. President.
It’s awful enough that 20 first-graders were among those killed in last month’s massacre at a school in Newtown, Conn. Is it really necessary for both sides to put them on the front lines in this political fight?
There’s an argument to be made that the horrific nature of the carnage justifies reminding the public that children are vulnerable, but partisans on each side will only dig in deeper if they perceive that the other side is using kids as props.
That’s how Marco Rubio took it. The Republican senator from Florida, on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, criticized Obama’s use of children in the gun announcement because “it implies that somehow those of us who do not agree with his public policy prescriptions don’t equally care about children.” He called it “an effort to convince people that the other side are just not good people.”
By that standard, the NRA ad was breathtaking, even by the low standards of modern political campaigns. There’s nothing “elitist” about having Secret Service protection for the young children of presidents, regardless of political party.
The agents aren’t there to protect the children from random mass shootings, but to prevent the national crisis that would occur if the commander in chief’s offspring were taken hostage. The gun group’s ad — closing slogan: “protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours” — was plainly designed to build resentment of Obama and his daughters, ages 11 and 14. As for the NRA’s plan to put armed guards in all American schools, even many conservatives call it unwieldy and absurd.
What Obama and Vice President Biden did with their announcement on Wednesday wasn’t nearly as offensive, but the heavy use of children was still uncomfortable.
Obama read parts of letters from three children in attendance, introducing each one (“Go ahead and wave, Grant”).
“In the letter that Julia wrote me,” Obama said, “she said, ‘I know that laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard.’ Julia, I will try very hard.”
Obama described his opponents choosing an “A grade from the gun lobby” over parents’ “peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade.”
He then closed by talking about a painting given to him by the father of Grace McDonnell, 7, who was killed in Newtown. “Every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace,” he said. “And most of all, I think about how, when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us, we must act now — for Grace.”
It was an emotional presentation — at one point Biden wiped his eye — and apparently effective, because the NRA, fresh from its attack on Obama’s kids, responded defensively, saying it will “continue to focus on keeping our children safe.”
But if everyone is so concerned about the children, perhaps the grown-ups could agree to fight this out themselves — and let kids worry about their books rather than high-capacity magazines.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.