President Barack Obama’s Profound Visual Argument for Gun Control

Barack Obama, gun control

President Barack Obama, accompanied by children who wrote to the president about gun violence following last month’s school shooting in the US, signs executive orders. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

Barack Obama signs a series of executive actions in favour of gun control, flanked by children who wrote to him after the killings at Sandy Hook. Their parents or guardians stand behind them. While the children reflect the president’s solemnity, the supervising adults are finding it hard not to grin with pride at their kids’ involvement in this historic occasion.

It might look cynical. It might seem a bit obvious. The imagery here is so crystal clear they might as well have had a big sign saying “Children! Future!” (as they sing at The Simpsons’ Springfield elementary school).

But if you think that you probably haven’t got a child. Or perhaps you rationalised the US’s horror at the shootings that led to this photograph as colossal hypocrisy in the face of alleged massacres of non-American children by military drones. For some on the left it seems Obama is little better than a child murderer himself, while for the gun-toting right, his desire to restrict gun access is an assault on freedoms defined in the 18th-century political discourse that is the Constitution of the United States:

“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

And this is the point of Obama’s photo opportunity with America’s children. The debate about gun control is a debate about history and its burdens. When that amendment was added to the constitution in 1791, the authors surely did not think they were setting down the Ten Commandments of national identity, to be preserved unaltered forever. Or if they did, well … they are dead.

This photograph puts Obama on the side of the future, the living, and generations to come. Corny, but true. What is the US, the picture asks? Is it a document written more than 200 years ago, or is it your children?

So I don’t think this is a manipulative image – instead it is a clear statement about the priorities that make sane gun control so urgent. It is a visual argument. Is the US a past or a future? Barack Obama is the hero of moderate progressive politics today because he picks his fights, and he has picked the right one here. In this picture the historical fetishism of Republican defenders of the second amendment is answered by an image of a future that needs to be freed from gun mania.

Like believing the British past is reflected by Downton Abbey, believing that the US’s innate spirit is defined by the second amendment is a fantasy. In fact, the ideas that shaped those words are not American but European, rooted in the political theory of the Renaissance.

The reason Americans need the right to bear arms is so they will be ready to serve in the militia: this idea that a free republic must be defended by a citizen militia goes back to the 16th-century writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. Even more history, but again – look at the picture. An idea that goes back to Machiavelli’s attempt to recruit soldiers to fight against Pisa five centuries ago, versus modern America, its youth and children.

Crude imagery? This picture is a profound political argument.

article by Jonathan Jones via

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