Commander- or Comforter-in-Chief?: Examining Presidential Rhetoric in the Wake of Mass Shootings

Commander- or Comforter-in-Chief?: Examining Presidential Rhetoric in the Wake of Mass Shootings

Jaclyn Schildkraut (State University of New York at Oswego, USA) and Bethany G. Dohman (State University of New York at Oswego, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 40
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5670-1.ch007
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After mass shootings, various claims makers enter the national discourse to understand why these events happen and how best to respond to them in respect to policy and prevention. Among these individuals is the President of the United States, who often offers commentary meant to unify the nation in the aftermath of such tragedy and calm the fears of a nervous public. The influence of presidential rhetoric has long been contested among scholars, though it has yet to be examined in the context of mass shootings. Accordingly, this chapter seeks to understand the nature of such responses to these events in respect to the language choices made by the President, the context in which these messages are framed, and how these contribute to a broader understanding of mass shootings. Remarks offered by presidents in response to mass shootings are analyzed for 32 attacks occurring between 1966 and 2014, with attention paid to patterns within and between the various presidents. Potential policy implications and a broader social contextualization of these commentaries also are explored.
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At approximately 9:35 on the morning of December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and opened fire, first in the hallway as school administrators tried to stop him, then in two separate classrooms (Barron, 2012). As law enforcement closed in on the scene, the shooter committed suicide (Barron, 2012). A total of 20 first grade students and 6 adults, including the school’s principal, had been killed (Barron, 2012). Within minutes, the story of the shooting had begun to permeate news outlets, taking hold of the nation’s collective attention.

Like other shootings that had come before, including those at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin less than five months earlier, questions began to circle about the event. Audiences wondered who the shooter was, how they could have committed such a horrific attack, and whether another attack was possible in their own communities. In addition to following various news sources about the event, seeking information and updates, many tuned in to see how then-President Barack Obama would comment on the shooting. At approximately 3:15 p.m., less than six hours following the shooting, he addressed the nation from the White House’s Press Briefing Room:

So our hearts are broken today, for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.

As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics. (Obama, Newtown, December 14, 2012)

Like he had with prior shootings, and like presidents who came before him who had to offer similar remarks in the wake of these events, President Obama chose his words carefully as he addressed the nation about Sandy Hook. For the majority of individuals who heard or read his remarks, they never directly will experience or be impacted by such a tragedy. Accordingly, they forge their opinions and understanding about the event based solely on the information they receive from claims makers – either those in a primary capacity, such as the president, or those considered secondary level, such as the media. In one poll, for example, respondents reportedly perceived the Sandy Hook shooting to be reflective of broader social problems in the nation (Washington Post-ABC News Poll,” n.d.). Researchers (e.g., Elsass, Schildkraut, & Stafford, 2014) also have found that the amount of news media one consumes also is influential in shaping such opinions.

The way in which the President chose to frame the news of the shooting had broader reaching impacts beyond simply informing the nation of the attack in Newtown. As Zarefsky (2004) notes, a main function of presidential rhetoric is to create political reality. How events such as mass shootings are understood comes from the way in which they are defined by those with the power and ability to do so (Best, 1987, 2006; Zarefsky, 2004). Furthermore,

[t]he definition of the situation…highlights certain elements . . . for use in arguments and obscures others, influences whether people will notice the situation and how they will handle it, describes causes and identifies remedies, and invites moral judgments about circumstances or individuals. (Zarefsky, 2004, p. 612)

Thus, not only is presidential rhetoric in the wake of mass shootings useful in helping to inform the nation about the events, it also is instrumental in shaping public responses to the tragedies as well.

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