12/17/2012 10:00 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Disadvantage Black? Race, Politics, and Gun Reform

President Barack Obama has weathered two seasons of thinly-veiled racial attacks, apparently a standard part of what it takes to be elected president if you're black. Before he took office in January 2009, there was a run on guns, sparked in part by the head of the NRA arguing that the president wanted a total ban. (That was factually incorrect.)

After the shooting in Connecticut that left 20 schoolchildren dead, the president said:

As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it is 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. We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

"Meaningful action" is one of those political code words. In this case, it might mean "We know we need to reform America's gun laws but we don't know if we have the political capital to do it."

President Bill Clinton triangulated the gun issue by performing political jujitsu, arguing that President George H.W. Bush was soft on crime because he refused to crack down on rogue gun sales. That helped neutralize the argument that politicians who wanted to restrict gun sales were the ones soft on crime. But President Clinton also pushed his tough-on-crime credentials by strongly advocating for the death penalty.

I don't normally argue that his race hurts the president's ability to lead, but I wonder if in the case of gun laws -- and the related issue of criminal justice reform -- it complicates matters. The level of paranoia whipped up by the NRA and some other gun advocates about President Obama's gun policies plays into what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls "Patriot Paranoia" about gun laws. That paranoia has a racial component, not just regarding blacks but also Jews. None of this conclusively proves that racial sentiment (and fear of blowback) influences the president's ability to push for gun reform. But living in a multiracial (certainly not post-racial) society challenges us to ask questions about how race influences politics and policy.

What do you think: is it harder for the president to launch a hard conversation on guns because of his race? And if so, how do we change move ahead with this debate anyway? What do you want to see happen?