To some, Obama's newfound enthusiasm for shooting clay pigeons - he said in an interview that he did it "all the time" at his retreat in the Maryland mountains - also seemed a bit suspicious.
So on Saturday, the White House tried to silence the skeptics by releasing a photo of Obama shooting on the range at Camp David in August. In the photo, the president, wearing protective glasses and ear-muffs, is squinting down the barrel of a gun, moments after pulling the trigger. Smoke shoots out of the front of the gun.
The White House said the photo was taken on Aug. 4, which was Obama's 51st birthday. But it offered no further 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 when 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 White House 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., the executive director of the National Skeet Shooting Association, whose 35,000-member rolls do not include the president.
Obama is hardly the first politician to draw scorn for boasting of experience with guns. In 2007, during his first presidential campaign, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was ridiculed when he said, "I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter - small varmints, if you will." In 2004, John Kerry, then a presidential candidate and now secretary of state, was lampooned for showing up in camouflage to go hunting less than two weeks before the election.
The latest commotion has its origins in the interview Obama gave to The New Republic, now owned by Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder and former Obama campaign aide. During 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."
Obama went on to say that the reality of guns in urban areas differs from that in rural areas. "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," he said. "And that means that advocates of gun control have to do a little more listening than they do sometimes."
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 after the interview was published 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. "But in his effort to pursue a political agenda, he apparently is willing to convince gun owners that he's one of us, that he's a Second Amendment supporter."
Cox said no one was fooled.
"Skeet shooting, whether you've done it or not, doesn't make you a defender of the Second Amendment," he said.
While White House officials privately dismissed skeptics by comparing them to "truthers" who doubted that Obama was born in Hawaii, even some liberals found the skeet-shooting comment hard to believe.
Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" made fun of Obama's statement as well as 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 who do not believe him.
"The point is, Mr. President, what are you doing? Why try?" Stewart asked. "As far as most of your opponents go, no measure of detente, true or disingenuous, will ingratiate you to your opponents. It's a fool's errand."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service