President Barack Obama called for a discussion in the wake of the 2011 Tucson shootings and again on Wednesday following the Colorado movie theater rampage. But Mr. Carney did not offer any specifics about his plans for pursuing the matter…
White House officials have said they have no plans to get behind gun-control legislation, citing the difficult politics of the subject.
Obama is no stranger to dipping deep into the murky waters of executive powers and finding ways to achieve policy goals that Congress has thwarted. Proponents of gun control say that the president has crystal clear and uncontested powers—some used by an NRA card-carrying GOP president (Bush resigned from the group in 1995)—to deal with assault weapons.
Yet the White House remains stonily silent on Obama’s intentions even to reevaluate whether to exercise these powers. In the Big Easy, he made it sound as if gun control is always hard. It most definitely can be. But there are actions Obama can easily take, and what’s hard for Democrats and gun-control advocates to figure out is why he won’t.
[T]he vast majority of voters who dislike gun control have so many other reasons to oppose Obama that they are unlikely to switch just because he holsters this one issue. Congressional Democrats face the same dynamic. One reason Democrats abandoned gun control is because they concluded that it bled them rural- and blue-collar seats during the 1994 GOP landslide. But after slowly recapturing some of those seats, Democrats saw almost all of them wash away again in a 2010 GOP torrent swelled not by guns but the broader recoil from Obama’s activism.
If there is a road back to a Democratic congressional majority, it almost certainly will not run through such downscale districts; rather, it will go through the leafy suburban seats where gun control retains more backing. Likewise, if Obama survives in November, it will largely be because he maintained support among minorities and upscale women—not because he recaptured the blue-collar whites stampeding away from him.
Gun control is a high-risk issue because half of the electorate passionately opposes it. Yet it is the half that Democrats have little chance of reaching. Since Clinton’s era, almost all Republicans, even those from upscale places still open to restrictions, have bowed to the majority position on guns among their core supporters. However, on gun control, almost uniquely for a social issue, the president and most congressional Democrats have elevated the priorities of voters outside of their coalition over the preferences of those within it. In politics, as in combat, it isn’t much of a fight when one side unilaterally disarms.
The assault-weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004, however, was not particularly successful. In prohibiting 19 brands of weapons (along with copycats), the law’s judgments seemed arbitrary. A gun that resembles a military rifle is not inherently more lethal than an aesthetically innocuous weapon. But the law’s prohibition of high-capacity magazines — capped at 10 rounds — strikes me as prudent. A 100-round, drum-style magazine — the kind that police say the Aurora suspect had in his AR-15 — is highly useful to someone intent on mass murder. It is less useful for an average citizen intent on self-defense, unless he fears home invasion by a foreign army.
Such laws are always a balance. In this case, the gain in public safety would be relatively small — restricting access to a destructive technology used by killers at Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood and Virginia Tech. But the burden on gun rights would be minimal. Defenders of high-capacity magazines argue that they are more convenient at the gun range, since you can fill up a large magazine before leaving home. There is a constitutional difference between the argument “I need to defend myself from aggression” and “I’d prefer to reload less at the range.”
I am open to the idea that other measures — particularly improving the capacity of the mental health system to identify people with emotional problems — should have a higher national priority. Reasonable gun laws are not a panacea. But neither are they a threat to the Constitution. They merit a debate — driven not by ideology but by prudential judgments on public safety.
The temptation at times like these is to “do something” about guns. Australia and Britain passed tougher gun laws after mass shootings, and haven’t suffered another since. I would respectfully submit that Australia and Britain are full of Australians and Britons, not Americans. Moreover, neither country is home to an estimated 180 million privately owned guns, as ours is. Guns last forever. The one with which I hunt was made in 1900 and functions as well today as it did then. If tomorrow President Obama signed the ultimate gun-control law—a total ban on the sale, manufacture, and import of guns—we would still be awash in firearms for generations to come. Madmen like the murderer in Aurora would find a way to kill. Witness Timothy McVeigh…
[Forty] percent of Americans own guns, and like it or not, they identify with them, personally. Guns stand in for a whole range of values—individualism, strength, American exceptionalism—that many gun owners hold dear. Tell a gun owner that he cannot be trusted to own a firearm—particularly if you are an urban pundit with no experience around guns—and what he hears is an insult. Add to this that the bulk of the gun-buying public is made up of middle-aged white men with less than a college degree, and now you’re insulting a population already rubbed raw by decades of stagnant wages.
The harm we’ve done by messing with law-abiding Americans’ guns is significant. In 2010, I drove 11,000 miles around the United States talking to gun guys (for a book, to be published in the spring, that grew out of an article I wrote for this magazine), and I met many working guys, including plumbers, parks workers, nurses—natural Democrats in any other age—who wouldn’t listen to anything the Democratic party has to say because of its institutional hostility to guns. I’d argue that we’ve sacrificed generations of progress on health care, women’s and workers’ rights, and climate change by reflexively returning, at times like these, to an ill-informed call to ban firearms, and we haven’t gotten anything tangible in return. Aside from what it does to the progressive agenda, needlessly vilifying guns—and by extension, their owners—adds to the rancor that has us so politically frozen and culturally inflamed. Enough.