WASHINGTON -- Two days before President Barack Obama's first trip outside Washington to promote his gun-control proposals, the White House tried Saturday to settle a brewing mystery by releasing a photo to back his claim to be a skeet shooter.
Obama had set inquiring minds spinning when, in an interview with The New Republic magazine, he answered "yes" when asked if he had ever fired a gun. The admission came as a surprise to many.
"Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time," Obama said in the interview released last weekend, referring to the official presidential retreat in rural Maryland, which he last visited in October while campaigning for re-election. Asked whether the entire family participates, the president said: "Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there."
Obama never mentioned skeet shooting prior to that interview.
The White House photo released Saturday is dated Aug. 4, 2012. The caption says Obama is shooting clay targets on the range at Camp David. Obama is seen holding a gun against his left shoulder, his left index finger on the trigger and smoke coming from the barrel. He is wearing jeans, a dark blue, short-sleeved polo shirt, sunglasses and earmuffs.
The National Rifle Association, which has rejected Obama's proposals, scoffed at the photo.
"One picture does not erase a lifetime of supporting every gun ban and every gun-control scheme imaginable," said Andrew Arulanandam, the organization's spokesman.
The NRA opposes Obama's call for Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and says requiring background checks for all gun purchases would be ineffective because the administration isn't doing enough to enforce existing gun laws.
Asked at Monday's press briefing how frequently Obama shoots skeet and whether photos existed, White House press secretary Jay Carney said he didn't know how often. Pictures may exist, he said, but he hadn't seen any.
"Why haven't we heard about it before?" Carney was asked.
"Because when he goes to Camp David, he goes to spend time with his family and friends and relax, not to produce photographs," Carney said.
Obama is accompanied almost everywhere by at least one White House photographer.
Carney declined to comment on the decision to release the photo, which he had announced on Twitter. The release appeared to be part of a strategy to portray Obama as sympathetic to gun owners and opponents of his gun-control measures who argue the proposals would infringe on an individual's Second Amendment right to bear arms.
A top official with the National Skeet Shooting Association said the photo suggests Obama is a novice shooter.
"This isn't something he's done very often because of how he's standing, how he has the gun mounted," said Michael Hampton, executive director of the San Antonio-based association.
Hampton said Obama's remark about "skeet shooting all the time" and the White House photo would have met less skepticism had the president spoken about his hobby months before this new debate over guns in the U.S.
"Once it becomes controversial and there's problems, to talk about it then, that's where it becomes very debatable and is not being received as well as if he would have done this six months ago," Hampton said.
In interview, appearing in The New Republic's Feb. 11 issue, Obama said gun-control advocates should be better listeners in the debate over firearms, which was sparked by the December killing of elementary school pupils in Connecticut. He also declared his deep respect for the long tradition of hunting in this country.
"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," Obama said. "Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas. And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were 10, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family's traditions, you can see why you'd be pretty protective of that."
"So it's trying to bridge those gaps that I think is going to be part of the biggest task over the next several months. And that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes," Obama said.
His gun control measures also have met resistance on Capitol Hill.
In Minneapolis on Monday, Obama plans to make remarks and discuss his proposals with local and law enforcement officials during a stop at the police department's special operations center. He's also expected to hear from community members about their experiences with gun violence.
Obama announced his proposals in mid-January, about a month after the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.