Updated Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 10:49 AM
WASHINGTON — When President Obama mentioned last week that he had picked up a new hobby — skeet shooting at Camp David, Md. — it was a surprising disclosure by a president whose main identification with guns these days is his effort to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
To some, Obama’s newfound enthusiasm for shooting clay pigeons — he said in an interview that he did it “all the time” at the presidential retreat — also seemed a bit suspicious.
So Saturday, the White House tried to silence the skeptics by releasing a photograph of Obama shooting on the range at Camp David in August. The president, wearing protective glasses and earmuffs, is squinting down the barrel of a shotgun, moments after pulling the trigger. Smoke is shooting out of the front of the gun.
A White House spokesman said the photo was taken Aug. 4, Obama’s 51st birthday. But it offered no details on whether his target practice was a regular hobby or a one-time event.
The notion of the president taking aim at targets flung into the air captivated some in the political and social-media worlds at a time he is pushing Congress to enact sweeping restrictions on high-capacity rifles and magazines.
Conservatives scoffed, comics mocked, a congresswoman challenged him to a skeet-shooting contest, a fake picture of an armed Obama circulated on the Internet, and the administration tried to make the whole matter go away.
“It was a surprise to a lot of people in the industry when we saw that and heard that,” said Michael Hampton Jr., executive director of the National Skeet Shooting Association, whose 35,000 members do not include the president.
The skeet hubbub has its origins in the interview Obama gave to The New Republic, for its Feb. 11 issue. In the interview, Franklin Foer, the magazine’s editor, referred to the fight over gun control and asked the president if he had ever fired a gun.
“Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” Obama said.
“The whole family?” Foer asked.
“Not the girls,” he said, “but oftentimes guests of mine go up there. And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”
The skeet-shooting comment caught many off guard because it is not something the president has talked about. While other presidents have used the skeet-shooting range at Camp David, database searches of Obama’s speeches and interviews turned up no prior mention of participating. No friend or guest has come forward in recent days to publicly describe shooting with the president.
“I would refer you simply to his comments,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters who asked how often the president shoots. “I don’t know how often. He does go to Camp David with some regularity, but I’m not sure how often he’s done that.”
Asked why no one had seen a picture or heard about it before, Carney said, “Because when he goes to Camp David, he goes to spend time with his family and friends and relax, not to produce photographs.”
That did not satisfy the skeptics. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column cast doubt on the claim, while Fox News quoted an unnamed person saying Obama had participated once during a Marine competition at Camp David but not “all the time.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., went on CNN to question the assertion.
“I tell you what I do think,” Blackburn said. “I think he should invite me to Camp David, and I’ll go skeet shooting with him and I bet I’ll beat him.”
Gun-rights supporters said the president was evidently trying to reach out to gun owners to assuage their concerns about his legislative proposals.
“He clearly doesn’t get it,” said Chris Cox, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. “Skeet shooting, whether you’ve done it or not, doesn’t make you a defender of the Second Amendment,” he said.
Even some liberals found the skeet-shooting comment hard to believe. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” made fun of Obama’s statement and those who doubted it. He essentially agreed with Cox that it was pointless for the president to try to reach out to gun-rights supporters.
“The point is, Mr. President, what are you doing? Why try?” Stewart asked. “As far as most of your opponents go, no measure of détente, true or disingenuous, will ingratiate you to your opponents. It’s a fool’s errand.”
David Plouffe, a former senior adviser to the president, posted a link Saturday to the White House photo on Twitter along with a message to doubters: “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day — let the Photoshop conspiracies begin!”
Pete Souza / The White House/Getty Images
President Obama shoots at clay pigeons in this August photo from the shooting range at Camp David. He was recently quoted saying, “We do skeet shooting all the time” there.