President Obama is not flip-flopping on gun restrictions. He's not even flipping. But he is standing still, pointedly refusing to push ideas he supported as a candidate – reasonable ideas such as requiring criminal background checks on buyers at gun shows and reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons.
For instance, Mr. Obama said in Mexico yesterday that he has "not backed off at all from [his] belief that the ... assault-weapons ban made sense." Mexico is complaining bitterly about the flow of US weapons to its violent drug cartels and wants the US to bring back the 1994 ban, which Congress let expire in 2004.
That's not in the works, though. As the president pointed out, "none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy."
This is Obama the political realist speaking, calculating the unlikelihood that Congress, under the thumb of the National Rifle Association, will pass this or any other controversial gun restrictions.
But is "easy" the proper criterion? What about "necessary"?
This month's anniversaries of the mass killings at Virginia Tech and Columbine serve as a reminder that, while it's people who pull the trigger, it's easy access to guns that enables them. The urgent message continues in this year's spree of mass shootings – from Binghamton, N.Y,, to Oakland, Calif. – which have claimed at least 60 lives, including seven law enforcement officers.
Certainly, pushing the president's positions on the Hill would be an uphill battle. Since November, Americans have been on a gun-buying spree, snapping up weapons for fear of future restrictions and for fear of increased crime (nationwide, violent crime actually declined last year). Some see guns as a safe financial investment.
Meanwhile, the ironclad case of the so-called "iron river of guns" to Mexico is politically less convincing on closer look. Both the US and Mexico having been saying that more than 90 percent of traced guns found in Mexico originate in the US. That sounds like the US is mostly to blame. But those are only the traced guns. Many, many more guns are not traced and come from other countries. The gun lobby says both governments are exaggerating the US role in order to weaken the rights of gun owners.
Then there's last year's Supreme Court ruling. The court gave the first full interpretation of the Second Amendment and a right to keep and bear arms, effectively overturning a longstanding ban on handguns in Washington, D.C.
The powerful gun lobby uses these last two points to prevent Congress from moving even one inch forward on legislation that the lobby says would thwart the Second Amendment, but which would actually simply help keep guns out of the hands of people who would misuse them. Well do Democrats remember the congressional seats they lost in 1994 – the year the assault-weapons ban and criminal-background checks at gun stores became law.
But lawmakers are overestimating the influence of the lobby. Despite its heavy campaign spending in the 2008 election cycle, voters still supported lawmakers who backed sensible gun restrictions – not to mention a presidential candidate who did.
A bipartisan poll done last year for a coalition of mayors against illegal guns showed 87 percent of Americans support criminal-background checks on the sale of all guns – even those at gun shows. Forty percent of guns are sold at gun shows, where no background check is required.
And despite the tussle over guns-to-Mexico statistics, American sales to arms traffickers still represent a significant threat to Mexico – and to the US. The Mexican drug cartels "constitute the gravest organized crime threat to the United States," according to the Department of Homeland Security. Mexico points to a direct correlation between the expiration of the assault-weapons ban and increased seizure of assault weapons in Mexico.
The president is right to devote more resources to gun law-enforcement. But it won't be a comprehensive solution as long as gun runners can still load up unscreened at gun shows and legally buy military-style assault weapons.
The gun lobby may attempt to argue that every effort toward sensible gun restrictions is an attack on the Second Amendment, but the argument is specious. The kinds of laws that Congress is so afraid to consider don't erode those rights – they simply make it harder for criminals to use guns against a law-abiding society. Seventeen states so far have recognized this in closing the so-called "gun-show loophole."
Obama is right: Greater regulation of guns is not an "easy" argument to make. But it's a necessary one, and the president should not forget that.