President Obama has drawn clear linkages between criminal justice reform and gun control, but the two remain worlds apart on Capitol Hill.
In an interview with the BBC last week, Mr. Obama spoke of both issues in the same breath, saying he is encouraged by the bipartisan movement to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system and believes it’s an important piece of a broader effort to improve race relations in the U.S.
The president also candidly said gun control represents the biggest frustration of his time in office, as all attempts to restrict firearms have been met with stiff resistance and gone nowhere.
Analysts say the two issues, while somewhat related, are distinctly different both in substance and politics. Republicans and Democrats increasingly are finding common ground on criminal justice reform and view it as a way to both better society and save money by shrinking the U.S. prison population.
Gun control, specialists say, is an entirely different ballgame. There’s no consensus on Capitol Hill — or across the nation — that background checks legislation, for example, would’ve prevented any of the mass shootings seen across the nation in recent years, including last week’s attack at a Louisiana movie theater.
The political power of groups such as the National Rifle Association also plays a central role in the gun control debate. No similarly powerful organization exists in the discussion about criminal justice reform.
Still, for Mr. Obama, gun control and criminal justice reform seem to fall under a larger umbrella. Both must be tackled, he argues, to move the country forward.
“Some of the most recent concerns around policing and mass incarcerations are legitimate and deserve intense attention. And I feel that we are moving the ball forward on those issues. What I will say is that eight years — well, after eight years of my presidency — that children growing up during these eight years will have a different view of race relations in this country and what’s possible,” Mr. Obama told the BBC before turning the discussion to gun control.
“You mentioned the issue of guns. That is an area where, if you ask me where has been the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient commonsense gun safety laws. Even in the face of repeated mass killings,” he continued.
“And you know, if you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands. And for us not to be able to resolve that issue has been something that is distressing.”
Some analysts say Mr. Obama is right to link criminal justice reform and gun violence, especially because both issues are now very much at the forefront of the national political dialogue.
“We hear talk about ‘good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns,’ but we have a criminal justice system that spends too much time labeling many nonviolent people as ‘bad.’ At the same time our gun laws allow for people who appear to be ‘good’ to access guns and commit mass murders,” said Montre Carodine, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who has written extensively on race relations.
“Bottom line, we have more people in prison than ever today, but many of us are scared to go to the movies tonight. So something is clearly amiss,” he said.
Changes to the criminal justice system seem to be on the horizon. Leading Republicans and Democrats support legislation that would keep more nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and steer them toward treatment programs, house arrest or other alternatives to incarceration.
The issue appeals to virtually all sides of the political spectrum, analysts say, because it addresses social justice and race relations, a top priority for most Democrats, while also drawing in fiscal conservatives because of the money that can be saved by reducing the federal prison population.
“Everybody has some issue they care about wrapped up in criminal justice reform,” said Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.
As criminal justice reform moves closer to reality, gun control seems to become less likely each day. Mr. Obama began his major push for gun control legislation following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and has continued that push in the aftermath of other shooting rampages over the past several years.
Despite some bipartisan support, a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases died on Capitol Hill two years ago. No other major gun control bills have made any progress in the House or Senate since then.
The failure of the background checks bill, analysts say, explains the central difference between gun control and criminal justice reform and why the two cannot be linked, at least not in the political realm.
“We have this very intense interest represented by the National Rifle Association that is focused exclusively on guns and regulations. There is really no counterpart to that in criminal justice reform,” said Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University who specializes in crime and violence.