Barack Obama's pre-presidential manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, has only one extended riff on gun control—not a homily on behalf of the cause or even a meditation on the deep divisions opened by the debate, but a story of crummy luck. While State Senator Barack Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, visiting his grandmother and hoping to "reacquaint myself with Michelle," the Illinois legislature abruptly returned to consider bills making the possession of illegal firearms a felony offense. Joining this special session would have required him to backtrack thousands of miles with a sick 18-month old in tow. So Obama stayed put on the islands, while back in Springfield, the package failed by a slim margin. His campaign manager warned him that a political opponent would likely pillory his absence in an attack ad featuring a beach chair and a Mai Tai.
That Obama didn't include the substantive case for gun control in his treatise was characteristic. A strain of wisdom ruled a generation of Democratic Party politics: You might pay a price for reticence on the issue in a big city like Chicago, but in the rest of the country, it was a noble loser, bait for backlash in electorally crucial Rust Belt states with not even the remotest hope for legislative victory. In 2010, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence judged Obama's efforts on behalf of its issue worthy of an "F."
So when the president learned of the massacre in Newtown, how could he not have felt at least a pang of guilt about the failure of his party and administration to keep gun control on even a low simmer? Indeed, his aides described the massacre as having knocked his tightly held interior life into full view like no other event. "I had never seen him like that as long as I've known him," his speechwriter Jon Favreau later told The New York Times, recalling the day of the killings, when Obama sat gob-smacked behind his desk.