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Opinion: Columnists

David Freddoso: Obama bold on gun deaths, but still hides on drone killings

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"If action by Congress could have saved one person, one child," an outraged President Obama declared on Wednesday, " ... if it could have prevented those people from losing their lives to gun violence in the future while preserving our Second Amendment rights -- we had an obligation to try."

"All in all," he added, "this was a pretty shameful day for Washington."

Obama's stern lecture was aimed at the senators -- mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, as well -- who had just killed a series of gun control measures he has been pushing ever since last year's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The Senate easily blocked a ban on so-called assault weapons and limits on the size of magazines. By a narrower vote, it also killed a compromise that would have expanded mandatory background checks to many private gun sales.

But if it really was as shameful a day as President Obama was suggesting, it had little to do with the law that had just failed. The background-check compromise -- the provision that had been considered most likely to pass -- would not have prevented the massacre at Sandy Hook, which was committed with stolen weapons. Nor is there evidence that it could have prevented 29 of the last 30 mass shootings in America over the last decade.

The Atlantic Online recently looked at all 30, and in only one case -- all the way back in 2003 -- do we know that the shooter avoided a background check that he might -- might -- have failed by purchasing his gun privately. (It is not clear whether the murderer's use of antidepressants would have, on its own, failed him.)

If Wednesday was a "shameful day," it might have been for another reason. Even as Obama gave his outraged speech on children's deaths, he simultaneously moved to shield from transparency the targeted drone assassination program he has built up and nurtured -- which has, during his time in office, killed more noncombatants than have all U.S. mass shootings during the same period. This fact, rarely brought up in the gun debate, provides some needed context for media coverage of all the political outrage.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee had requested an administration witness to defend the drone program's legality and even postponed its hearing on the matter until April 23 so that such a witness could prepare and attend. But on Wednesday, McClatchy's Jonathan Landay reported, Obama quietly refused the request. He did so despite his promise in his last State of the Union that he would make the drone program "even more transparent to the American people and to the world."

Since the day Obama became president in January 2009, approximately 135 people have been murdered in mass shootings in the United States. During that same period, Obama's drones in Yemen and Pakistan have killed at least 158 and possibly as many as 233 civilians -- that is, noncombatants, some of them women and children - according to a tally by the New America Foundation's Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative.

Those numbers probably understate the case, because in addition to identified civilians and terrorist militants, Obama's drones have also killed an additional 135 to 258 persons whose combatant status the foundation characterizes as "unknown" for lack of good information or due to conflicting news reports.

Despite this, the administration continues to hide details about the criteria under which such strikes are made. This is an important consideration, given recent revelations that the administration has been less than forthright about who the program targets. At the moment, Americans have no idea where the lines are drawn when targets are assassinated in their name -- that is, how many civilian deaths are considered acceptable if it means a higher- or lower-level terrorist gets a missile through his bedroom window.

So here's Obama's chance to do something, if he's really outraged about innocents losing their lives. Perhaps he can't just save "one person, one child," any time he likes, but he could at least show that he's doing something to limit their deaths.

Washington Examiner columnist David Freddoso covers media issues. Follow him on Twitter at @freddoso.

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