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On gun control, Obama picks a fight

President Obama’s gun-control proposals are the most comprehensive in a generation, reflecting a president resolved to be more muscular in his second-term dealings with Congress. With the American public on his side, he may well win.

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In a landmark ruling in 2008, the Supreme Court established an individual’s right to bear arms separate from a militia, overturning a ban on handguns in Washington, DC. Lawsuits in federal courts in Maryland and Illinois have rejected limitations on the right to carry a concealed weapon in public, almost ensuring that this issue will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

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Gun rights advocates and their allies in Congress quickly lined up against the Obama proposals, and it is hard at this point to see where the votes would emerge to pass legislation in either the House or the Senate. But the NRA’s leverage may be overrated. According to the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending, less than 1 percent of the campaign funds spent by the NRA on last year's general election achieved the desired result.

It is important to acknowledge what the administration’s proposals do not intend. The White House has not called for a confiscation of arms. That fear masks common ground.

Obama expressly acknowledged the constitutional right to bear arms. He nodded to the NRA’s proposal for more armed guards in schools that want them, and he shares concern about the influence of violent video games and preventing people with mental illness from accessing guns. Both the administration and the NRA want to protect children. The majority of gun owners support background checks, and many personally reject the allure of semiautomatic weapons – despite the post-Sandy Hook increase in demand for these firearms.

The NRA’s diminished influence combined with a broad sense of public urgency on gun control presents a rare opportunity to find a more constructive tone in one of the nation’s most divisive cultural issues. It is the purpose of our legislative process to refine disagreement into the substance of stronger policy. It may take sustained public prodding, but if Congress and the White House can strike a new balance between public safety and sensible gun ownership – and if the American public backs them on this – they may find it possible to build consensus on other difficult issues, too.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.


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