The apologists for the weapons industry — they pass themselves off as the gun rights movement — demonstrate their intellectual bankruptcy by regularly contradicting themselves with a straight face.

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On the one hand, President Obama’s modest initiatives to keep guns out of the wrong hands are denounced as an outlandish abuse of his executive powers. House Speaker Paul Ryan showed why the Republican far right has such faith in him by declaring that Obama’s “words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty.” Accusing a president of undermining liberty is a nice way of encouraging those who see him as a dictator.

Yet there was the National Rifle Association itself making fun of Obama’s actions for being puny. “This is it, really?” said the NRA’s Jennifer Baker. “They’re not really doing anything.” The same NRA put up a frightening online video declaring that Obama is “our biggest threat to national security.” So a president who’s “not really doing anything” is also a menacing tyrant.

This is an old trick on the part of those who will not budge, no matter how many Americans are killed by firearms. Their favorite ploy is to say that since there are already so many guns out there — some estimates run to over 300 million — no particular practical measure will do much of anything to stem the violence. It’s hard to know the exact number, by the way, partly because the NRA and its congressional enablers impede gun research.

But as soon as the weapons extremists have said that sane action is useless in the face of so many guns, they turn around and assert that those who support universal background checks and other small steps are secretly in favor of gun confiscation. Wait a minute: In one breath, they are implying, against all their other assertions, that the problem really is too many guns; in the next, they are condemning those who propose any regulations as would-be despots who want to disarm the country — the only thing their own rhetoric suggests would make a real difference. Welcome to a new philosophical concept: circular illogic.

That the gun lobby has managed to make this con game work so well for so long is a national scandal, and it drove the president to tears on Tuesday.

But something important happened in the East Room when Obama offered a series of constrained but useful steps toward limiting the carnage on our streets, in our schools and houses of worship, and at our movie theaters. He made clear that the era of cowering before the gun lobby and apologizing, trimming, hedging and equivocating is over.

On the policy front, his commitment to innovative gun safety technology that would confine the use of a weapon to its owner has exceptional promise. What have come to be known as “smart guns” could reduce the use of stolen weapons in crime and also prevent accidents. Obama made a point every parent can relate to: “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull a trigger on a gun.” Someone should ask Speaker Ryan if such safety measures for drugs or guns undermine our liberties.

And when it came to the politics of guns, Obama drew lines as he has never drawn them before. He explicitly called out the “90 percent of Republicans in the Senate” who opposed universal background checks in the fateful roll call after the Newtown massacre. As Obama put it, advocates of gun reform will need to “find the courage to vote” on the issue, and also have “the courage to get mobilized and organized.”

“All of us,” he said, “need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies.”

Obama isn’t running for re-election, but the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates have shown that they, too, are unafraid to take on those who remain unmoved by death after death. At this point, Democrats have little to lose. Only fearlessness will flip the politics of guns and begin to put Republicans on the defensive. Surely some in the GOP know that their party cannot forever embrace an irrational absolutism that leaves the country powerless before unconscionable carnage.

Bullies are intimidating until someone calls their bluff. By ruling out any reasonable steps toward containing the killing in our nation and by offering ever more preposterous arguments, the gun worshipers are setting themselves up for wholesale defeat. It will take time. But it will happen.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @EJDionne.

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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