President Barack Obama began the final year of his presidency with a speech on gun control. In it, he discussed a number of measures that he proposes to take by Executive Order to reduce gun violence in the United States.
It was a solid speech on many levels. Obama usually speaks with a teleprompter but as far as I can tell from the video, he did not use one in this case. Yes, he had his notes, but he spoke freely and even improvised from time to time. The result was very human and very powerful.
Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, let’s take a look at some of the things that he did well in his speech. It is below in its entirety. At 36 minutes, it is not short, but it is worth watching in full.
In the interests of time and space, I have not examined every aspect of Obama’s speech. Nevertheless, I set out below several reasons why I liked it.
- Masterful pauses.
- Excellent eye contact.
- Good use of rhetorical devices:
Asyndeton: “Fort Hood. Binghamton. Aurora. Oak Creek. Newtown. The Navy Yard. Santa Barbara. Charleston. San Bernardino. Too many.” (1:20)
Aporia: “How did we get here? How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” (15:00)
Comparison: “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some. Just as we don’t prevent all traffic accidents but we take steps to try to reduce traffic accidents.” (16:40)
Diacope: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage but they cannot hold America hostage.” (20:00)
Anaphora: “So all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies. All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislatures and businesses do their part to make our communities safer.” (30:34)
Antimetabole: “The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections. And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.” (32:05)
- Strong, quotable statements. For example:
“I reject that thinking.” (15:45)
“And for those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is.” (25:45)
“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” (26:45)
“They had rights too.” (29:00)
- Statistics to support his arguments:
“Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.” (4:27)
He also uses statistics to draw a nice comparison between the decline in gun deaths in Connecticut and the rise of gun deaths in Missouri. (17:30 to 18:05)
- Quotes, especially those from Republican politicians that can be used to support his case: George W. Bush (14:25), John McCain (14:40) and Ronald Reagan (17:00).
- Appropriate use of humour. Obama is talking about a very difficult subject. Many people in the audience were either victims of gun violence or had lost loved ones to gun violence. And yet, even in such circumstance, humour—used appropriately—can lighten the mood for a few moments before the speaker returns to the main, serious topic. Examples include:
“That’s a long distance call.” (3:00)
“And you know what? Research, science, those are good things, they work.” (18:40)
“That’s why we made sure that the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare …”. (25:47)
“If there’s an app that can help us find a missing tablet — which happens to me often the older I get …”. (27:00)
- Not being afraid to show emotion. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” (30:00)
- Telling stories, including the tragic story of Zaevion Dobson, (33:40)
I don’t know how successful Obama will be with his initiatives, given the potential opposition that he faces from Congress and others. Indeed, as I write this post, the sniping has already started and it is fierce.
But I am glad to see him continue the fight for saner gun control laws in the United States. I am not American but I like Americans, I have many American friends and relatives, and I have traveled a fair bit in the U.S. I find it incredible that this issue continues to plague that country. I wish Obama success.