Amid gun control debate, does 'skeet-gate' matter?

Obama's comment about going skeet shooting 'all the time' at Camp David raised eyebrows and sent many reporters on a hunt for evidence. Does the president's personal experience with guns matter to the gun control debate?

By , Correspondent

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    President Obama is pictured as he meets with police chiefs from three US communities scarred by mass shootings last year to talk about the administration's push to reduce gun violence, at the White House in Washington, Monday. Obama's statement in a recent interview that 'we do skeet shooting all the time' at Camp David, raised eyebrows amid gun control debate.
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As Washington engages in a fierce debate over gun control, does it matter whether President Obama has personally ever shot a gun? Would it change things to learn that he'd fired a weapon a total of five times in his life? Or 50? Or 500? 

We ask this, of course, because of the ongoing minicontroversy over Mr. Obama's statement in a recent interview with The New Republic that "we do skeet shooting all the time" at Camp David

It may have seemed at the time like a casual, offhand remark – Obama certainly didn't claim he's a hunter or a real gun enthusiast (though he made clear he has great respect for those who are). But it was immediately challenged by many who smelled, if not an outright falsehood, then a likely exaggeration.

Recommended: How much do you know about the Second Amendment? A quiz.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee challenged the president to a skeet-shooting contest. Reporters pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney for details of the president's adventures in skeet shooting – or better yet, a photograph of Obama engaged in said activity – to no avail. The New Republic briefly posted what it believed was an official photo of Obama wielding a gun at Camp David, but that turned out to be an Internet hoax.

The Washington Post's Fact Checker even weighed in, saying "we searched high and low through hundreds of news reports to see if there was ever any other mention of Obama engaged in skeet shooting," but reported being unable to find a single one. It gave the matter a "verdict pending" ruling. 

Eventually, Fox News tracked down one Camp David visitor who said they had, in fact, witnessed the president skeet shooting "a couple times" at most, during a traditional competition with Marine guards. The source added: "He stayed for about five minutes and couldn't leave fast enough."

So why has this subject received so much attention, and does it really matter? On one level, it's a tempest in a teapot. As the Post notes, skeet shooting is a common activity at Camp David. And nothing in Obama's statement has been proved false. Obama didn't claim to be a huge fan of skeet shooting, or even particularly good at it. In his response, he was careful to use "we" rather than "I," adding, "not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there." The phrase "all the time" could, technically speaking, have referred mostly to his guests rather than him personally.

On the other hand, as we've seen repeatedly, nothing causes politicians more trouble than when they are caught pandering to segments of the population by trying to appear to be something they're not. Remember when Mitt Romney talked about his love of shooting "varmints" during the 2012 campaign? Or when John Kerry went duck hunting in a borrowed camouflage jacket, with a borrowed shotgun, back in 2004? Both incidents probably wound up doing the candidates more harm than good.

During his political career, Obama has mostly avoided those embarrassingly fake "regular guy" comments and photo-ops – though he did have a memorably bad bowling incident during the 2008 campaign. But the gun debate has, like it or not, a cultural component that complicates the battle for the president. Maybe Obama's own lack of experience with guns shouldn't be relevant, but separating the personal from the political isn't always possible.  

That brings us back to our original thought exercise: Imagine if Obama had told The New Republic that he'd never fired a gun. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have become fodder for the National Rifle Association, and possibly done real damage to the president's efforts to push for gun-control legislation.

There's a reason the "Nixon goes to China" formulation is so often a necessary component of tough Washington battles. A leader who goes against his own side on a controversial issue has instant credibility that no one on the other side could ever match. Many gun owners don't trust Obama on the gun issue –even if, in theory, they might themselves be in favor of tighter regulations – simply because he's not "one of them."

But as we saw this week, letting them know he's gone skeet shooting a few times is not going to minimize that divide. Given the reaction Obama's comment has inspired, it might have even exacerbated it. 

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