By Eugene Robinson
Don’t listen to those who say President Obama’s bold plan to reduce gun violence—including an assault weapons ban—has no chance in Congress. I seem to recall that health care reform was deemed impossible, too. Until it happened.
I also recall that the health care fight cost Democrats dearly in the 2010 midterm election. But the White House seems to have learned valuable lessons from that experience, including the need to be vivid and insistent in driving home the need for change. Hence the decision to have children on stage and in the audience Wednesday as Obama announced his proposals.
It was a heart-rending reminder of why we’re talking about gun control: the unspeakable massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last month. The gun lobby and its allies in Congress immediately charged that by using children in this way, Obama was not playing fair. Those critics would have a point—if this were a game.
As the people of Newtown know—and the people of Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., Blacksburg, Va., and so many other cities know far too well—this is no game. It’s a matter of life and death.
Roughly 30,000 Americans will die by gunshot this year. About two-thirds will be suicides; almost all the rest will be victims of homicide. It is obvious that if guns could be kept out of the hands of people who are dangerously unstable or inclined to commit crimes, and if the weapons themselves were better suited for sport or self-defense than for killing sprees, lives would be saved.
How many lives? We would have a better estimate if Congress had not effectively prohibited federally funded research on the subject—and if presidents hadn’t acquiesced in the ban. One of the executive actions Obama announced was an order that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.”
Don’t listen to those who say Obama should have begun more modestly, perhaps with the centerpiece being universal background checks for gun purchases. Obama was right to go big. He was right to ask Congress not only for universal background checks but also for a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines—measures that the powerful National Rifle Association abhors.
As a tactical matter, Obama’s decision has already been vindicated. NRA President David Keene told “CBS This Morning” that “as a general proposition, the NRA has been very supportive of doing background checks.” That’s false; Keene’s organization has fought tooth and nail against efforts by various states to toughen background checks. But Keene appeared to be signaling that the NRA is resigned to some concessions.
This is a big deal, since an estimated 40 percent of gun purchases are not made through licensed dealers—which would subject the buyer to a background check—but rather as “private” transactions, including at gun shows. Does anyone think Keene would indicate a willingness to talk about the subject if background checks were all Obama is demanding? I don’t.
And in terms of substance, it would be absurd to talk about gun control—excuse me, the preferred euphemism is “reducing gun violence”—without talking about the guns themselves.
Guns don’t have rights; citizens do. The right to “keep and bear arms” does not preclude restricting military-style, automatic or semi-automatic rifles and handguns of the kind used in Newtown and other mass killings. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in the case that struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, recognized that government has the right to restrict ownership of “dangerous and unusual” weapons. I believe it’s abundantly clear that assault weapons fall into that category.
It is disingenuous for the NRA and its allies to argue that the term “assault weapon” is imprecise. Just because there’s not presently a universally accepted definition doesn’t mean that one can’t be crafted. The fact is that true hunters don’t go after deer with AR-15 knockoffs and 30-round magazines.
Newtown forced gun control onto the national agenda, and there is no way that we can pretend the horror never happened. Doing nothing and waiting for the next senseless slaughter is not an option.
So don’t listen to those who say Obama should have taken a minimalist approach. Polls indicate the public largely agrees with his proposals. If reasonable people are willing to speak with as loud a voice as the NRA’s, Congress will pay attention. And nothing will be impossible.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
White House/Pete Souza
President Barack Obama attends a Sandy Hook interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn.