Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett: Why we failed on gun control

Valerie Jarrett got a taste of just how powerful America's gun lobby was after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.

At the time she was former US president Barack Obama's senior adviser - Jarrett has been described as the former president's "protector in chief", "the single most influential person in the Obama White House", and remains one of his and Michelle Obama's closest friends.

Jarrett, who is making her first visit to Melbourne as a key speaker at the Women World Changers Summit this week, underestimated the National Rife Association's "ultra-influential" status in Washington. It was why the Obama administration's attempts to put in place stricter checks on who owns a gun got struck down.

"The defeat after Sandy Hook was not just painful and devastating, but enlightening in terms of how much control the NRA has," Jarrett tells Fairfax Media.

"We thought that after 20 six- and seven-year-old children and six adults were murdered in such a brutal and senseless way, by somebody who was clearly deranged, that Congress would act. But they failed. It shows you the stronghold that the NRA has."

Several polls in the US have found that American support for stricter gun laws increases after mass shootings, but eventually fades. Still, Jarrett, who in her hometown of Chicago works with families that have lost children to gun violence, hopes for bolder change - and beyond what the NRA is prepared to swallow.

Call for federal gun laws

Several of the rifles the Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock had in the high-rise Mandalay Bay hotel suite when he opened fire on concert-goers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival - now the deadliest mass shooting in US history with 58 dead and more than 500 injured - were fitted with "bump stocks" devices that allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire hundreds of rounds per minute.

The NRA has called on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to "immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law".

The NRA said it "believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations". But the lobby hasn't gone as far as accepting tougher restrictions on who owns a gun.

"The question is, do the Republicans and Congress have the political will to push back against the powerful NRA?" Jarrett asks. "They [NRA lobbyists] spend a great deal of money trying to prevent sensible legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous to themselves and to others."

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had bump stocks in his hotel room that allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had bump stocks in his hotel room that allow semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic weapons. Photo: AP

More than 32,000 people per year are killed by guns in the United States. "That's unprecedented in any other developed country," she says. "We have an epidemic of gun violence in the US. Not just the mass shootings that happen ... but also the individual people who are gunned down in our cities and towns across the country."

Guns are rampant, and state-based restrictions don't work. "In my hometown of Chicago [Illinois] it has very strict gun laws, but right next door in Indiana it has very lax gun laws," she says. "And so guns travel all over regardless of individual cities and states that do have gun laws. We really do need a federal policy."

Obama's confidant

Jarrett is a Chicago identity, but was born in Shiraz, Iran, and lived there until she was five. In 1956 her father ran a hospital for children in Shiraz, using American physicians and agricultural experts to help the country's move, under the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, towards better health and farming practices.

Obama's longest-serving adviser Valerie Jarrett went on to lead the Obama administration's efforts to address income inequality and gender inequality.

Obama's longest-serving adviser Valerie Jarrett went on to lead the Obama administration's efforts to address income inequality and gender inequality. Photo: Pete Souza

"It had a profound impact on my perspective," Jarrett says. "It taught me a great deal about the importance of diversity ... and informed my perspective on foreign policy. The United States is a great, great country, but it's not the only country, and we can learn a great deal beyond our own shores."

Jarrett went on to lead the Obama administration's efforts to address income inequality and gender inequality. Through overseeing the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and chairing the White House Council on Women and Girls, Jarrett got to know what makes Americans tick.

She also became part of the Obama family's inner circle. Jarrett would decide who'd come to White House parties and state dinners, sit in on Obama's meetings with America's most influential identities from business magnate Warren Buffett to former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, and reportedly was the only staff member who regularly followed the former president home.

Former US President Barack Obama chats with his then senior advisor Valerie Jarrett outside the Oval Office in the White House, June 12, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Former US president Barack Obama chats with his then senior advisor Valerie Jarrett outside the Oval Office in the White House, June 12, 2009. Photo: Pete Souza

But it was this unique access and common values with the former president that led to her input into Obama's policies aimed at lifting living standards for lower-income Americans - his signature healthcare policy Obamacare, and changes under the Fair Pay Act aimed at reducing the wage gap and ending pay discrimination.

While Jarrett has previously described Donald Trump's 2016 election win as a "punch to the stomach" and "soul-crushing", she keeps faith in the American people. "The biggest strength we have as Democrats is encouraging people to speak up about what is in their best interest," she tells Fairfax Media.

Whether it's Trump's polices on winding back healthcare reforms or a tax plan that primarily benefits the wealthy and multinationals, there is a way Democrats can come back at him. "We have to tell the stories of the everyday Americans who are adversely impacted by these policies," she says. "That's how we were able to keep the Affordable Care Act from being repealed. People told their stories; people showed up at Town Hall."

Lobbying for change

These days Jarrett - who built her business credentials in Chicago, well before her time in Washington - sits on numerous company boards including that of ride-hailing service Lyft, and fund manager Ariel Investments. She remains passionate about improving the lives of women and girls.

Former US President Barack Obama talks with his then senior adviser Valerie Jarrett who was passionate about improving the plight of women and girls during her time in the Oval Office.

Former US president Barack Obama talks with his then senior adviser Valerie Jarrett who was passionate about improving the plight of women and girls during her time in the Oval Office. Photo: Pete Souza

The playing field, especially in corporate America and in Silicon Valley where she nows spends much of her time, is uneven. Gender pay gap still exist for most industries in America. And while company leaders often talk about how diverse boards and leadership teams "is good for business" many are yet to offer policies that support diversity.

Jarrett says the foundations to support more women into work are not there. "Equal pay, paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility and affordable childcare - everywhere I go around the United States, as I talk to working families these are the issues they raise. ... We have over 43 million Americans who don't have a single day of sick leave, but everybody gets sick. Everybody's children get sick."

Aside from championing diversity in her high-profile role at Lyft, Jarrett is among a number of ex Obama administration staff helping business with another fight - how to get local, state and federal regulations to keep up with technological advances.

The expansion plans of recent entrants like Uber and Lyft are globally being stymied by lawmakers because of safety concerns and compliance (or lack thereof) with old regulation and taxation laws.

Jarrett quickly dismisses any assertion that taking a Lyft ride may not be safe. But getting policymakers to come along for the ride is a slow process."It takes time," she says. "We're in the middle of a technological revolution and it is natural that you're going to see government re-evaluate its regulatory systems in light of technology."

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This story Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett: Why we failed on gun control first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.