Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of President Obama's rare Oval Office speech to the nation Sunday night was its total focus on terrorism. There was barely a mention of the easy availability of guns on the home front with which it is carried out.

The FBI has determined the mayhem that claimed 14 American lives at a Christmas party in San Bernardino was indeed an act of terror, inspired if not ordered by radical Islamic terrorists. It enabled Obama to cast the whole horrible episode in those broad terms.


But it also unfolded in the context of a rampant epidemic of human slaughter in the communities of America facilitated by a particularly American gun culture that has entrenched firearms ownership and use as integral to our national identity.

Obama put his finger on the reality in saying of the San Bernardino killing: "The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in the country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world."

The phenomenon is too easily explained, and explained away, by citing our colorful and (some would say) our romantic frontier beginnings. Unsettled lands (by white men, anyway) were brought to civilization and cultivation, often at the point of a gun, and then kept that way amid a populace of aborigines, outlaws or just conniving city slickers.

The emergence of a revolutionary spirit among European settlers and colonists led to resort to arms against a British monarchy, a war of independence, new democratic states and a Constitution that declared, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

To many, the words seemed clearly to convey a collective right of self-defense of such free states. But others read them as bestowing an individual's right to possess and keep firearms for personal and family protection. Thus was born the American dispute that continues to this day. The Supreme Court in 2010 decided in a split decision in favor of the individual right, though that interpretation was recently challenged again by lower courts without reply so far from the Supremes.

In a rural, frontier society, gun ownership inevitably took on patriotic connotations that have survived and even flourished, aggressively fueled by a national gun-owning and gun-protecting lobby that has become among the most powerful political forces in the land.

Its power is currently demonstrated again by its stranglehold on the American Congress, in which no meaningful gun-control legislation can be enacted to outlaw even the most obvious weapons of mass assassination of the sort used in the San Bernardino massacre.

Is it no wonder, therefore, that President Obama, in addressing the nation the other night, offered no legislative proposal that might go to the heart of firearm availability to such murderers, whether motivated by terrorist design or just personal hate or madness?

At one point in his address, the president did suggest in the context of the terrorist threat that Congress "make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy" an assault weapon. "What we can do -- and must do -- is make it harder for them to kill," he said. But by what means, he didn't recommend.

The one thing he did call for was for Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to go after the Islamic State. It would replace the one passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on which he still relies, though the present target was not even in existence then. Such a proposal was recently defeated in the Republican-controlled Senate.

So it was all well and good for the American president to give his constituents a pep talk on how his administration plans to take down the Islamic State, and keep them safe meanwhile. As for confronting the gun lobby that keeps Congress paralyzed on reasonable measures to make it harder for the killing to go on, that apparently will have to await some other day.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.