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.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama, accompanied by Vice President Biden gets a high-five from letter writer Grant Fritz during a news conference on proposals to reduce gun violence, Jan. 16, at the Eisenhower Executive Office building in Washington. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: '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...'

Barack 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.

They also surely reflect a president stung by his own conscience in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre for not having acted earlier. And it is the collective sting of the nation, as the president acknowledged today, that is the key to approval of his proposals in Congress, given lawmakers’ previous cowering before the gun lobby.

Six mass shootings shattered communities across the United States prior to Newtown in 2012 without prompting even cursory election-year debate about gun control. It took the killing of 20 first-graders in their classroom to put the issue at the top of the national agenda.

The administration’s proposals include reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, mandatory background checks for anyone buying a firearm, new federal gun-trafficking measures, more cops, research into the effects of violent video games on youth, and better screening and treatment of mental illness.

Some of these were put into effect through the 23 executive orders Mr. Obama signed following his remarks today. But his call for universal background checks and a ban on military-style weaponry require congressional action. The president picked a fight – and he knows it.

“We are going to need voices [of support] in those areas, in those congressional districts, where the tradition of gun ownership is strong,” Obama said today. “It can’t just be the usual suspects," he said. "This will not happen unless the American people demand it.”

For a president who seems more naturally inclined toward compromise than conflict, Obama chose a propitious moment to step up to the bully pulpit. He has the momentum of reelection. And even before Sandy Hook, the ground had begun to shift on gun control.

A poll conducted by Republican Frank Luntz last year for Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support mandatory background checks for all gun purchases – a measure the NRA steadfastly opposes. A Pew Research Center survey this week shows that two-thirds of Americans favor a federal database to track gun sales and 80 percent favor measures to prevent people with mental illness from acquiring guns.

On the eve of the administration’s announcement, New York state adopted the nation’s broadest and strictest package of gun control laws, including versions of the assault-weapons ban and mandatory background checks. Big city mayors such as Michael Bloomberg of New York, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, and Thomas Menino of Boston are vocal supporters of tighter gun-control laws.

This comes after a decade when the political currents flowed in the other direction – notably, the 2004 lapsing of the federal assault-weapons ban and a 2005 law protecting gun manufacturers from the kind of punitive lawsuits that have hit the tobacco industry.

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.

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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