Hours before Adam Lanza used his mother’s semi-automatic rifle to commit mass murder in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school, the Michigan Legislature passed a law to allow concealed weapons in public schools and day-care centers.
The juxtaposition shows just how difficult the politics of gun control will be. Yet the basic concept is simple: The people who want most fiercely to obtain and use guns include many of the same people whose access to guns society most needs to restrict. In the mass shooting in July in Aurora, Colorado, the killer’s actions were lawful almost until the moment he began firing. If the preparations of mass murder are legal, then the law is an accomplice to madness.
Whether the Newtown shooting marks the peak of such madness or merely a gruesome landmark on the trail of sorrow depends in part on the weeks ahead. In state capitals and in Washington, advocates and legislators must quickly seize the initiative. Is this politicizing the tragedy? Yes, it is. But no more so than the campaign to push guns into every corner of American life -- including the corner bar. The retreat of gun control is over.
In his eulogy for the dead of Newtown, President Barack Obama said he would “use whatever power this office holds” to stop the violence. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, whose own life was scarred by gun violence, has promised to introduce a ban on the sale, transfer and importation of assault weapons, along with a ban on ammunition clips, drums and strips that hold more than 10 bullets. (Lanza’s held 30.)
We support Feinstein’s proposal, and we eagerly await the president’s agenda. What matters is that they contribute to a politically coherent long-term strategy for regulating guns. That will require politicians to make shrewd decisions and voters to remain engaged for the duration. It’s good to know that a Democratic president is paying attention and that California’s senior senator is on the case, but success will be measured by Republicans and Midwestern states.
Arguably no part of this work is more important than establishing, once and for all, a system of comprehensive background checks. Brady Law background checks have stopped more than 2 million gun sales since 1994. It is impossible to know if lives were saved as a result, or how many. Still, one-third or more of gun sales remain unregulated in the secondary market, which includes not only gun shows but also private sales between individuals. (The Columbine killers obtained their guns this way.) No gun should be sold in the U.S. without the buyer’s identity being checked against a national database.
This is not controversial. According to a survey released in July by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, even 74 percent of National Rifle Association members support criminal background checks. (Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is the co-founder and co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.)
A background check wouldn’t have prevented the Newtown massacre. No such cure-all exists or ever will. But Feinstein’s ban on high-capacity magazines might have slowed down the slaughter, potentially saving lives. And it would prohibit future sales of certain military-style assault rifles.
The shooter in Aurora bought his arsenal legally. No red flag was raised in the process of his rapid acquisition of three very powerful guns and more. Unless we are heedless of public safety, we owe it to ourselves and our children to do all we can to prevent 30,000 deaths and 100,000 shootings a year. More comprehensive background checks, with an alert system for suspicious behavior, is a good start.
The gun lobby, however, led by the NRA, has devoted itself not to closing dangerous loopholes, but to creating them. The “Stand Your Ground” laws enacted in Florida and elsewhere at the NRA’s behest all but legalize mayhem, provided it’s committed with a gun and without witnesses. The shooter need only claim he or she felt physically threatened before firing.
Similarly, the widely successful push to bring guns into schools, churches, bars, sporting events -- essentially every public venue in American life -- is part of a narrow political campaign that romanticizes and fetishizes firearms, all the better to sell them. In all of these instances, we are told the right to carry a gun is paramount to all others, including an employer’s right to maintain a safe workplace.
For sensible gun laws to succeed, that runaway agenda must be checked and the NRA’s marketing of fear and loathing must be consistently, publicly repudiated. This doesn’t involve hunters or sportsmen -- who shouldn’t have their Second Amendment rights abridged. The gun industry now cultivates consumers interested in “tactical” military-style weaponry. Meanwhile, the industry’s top spokesman, NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre, sells a hefty side of paranoia, intoning darkly about “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment.”
Gun crackpottery might be more easily ignored if the U.S. hadn’t produced 1 million gunshot victims in the past decade, even as crime broadly declined. Anyone who doubts the influence of culture on the gun debate should take stock of the silence emanating from the NRA after the Newtown tragedy. Likewise, on Dec. 16, NBC’s “Meet the Press” invited 31 senators on the show to articulate their pro-gun rights views. According to host David Gregory, all declined.
The fight for sensible gun laws won’t be won in Washington alone. It will take place in Tallahassee and Lansing, Denver and Hartford. It will take place in towns and villages -- and voting booths -- across the country.
Like race relations or gay rights, gun regulation will be a product of cultural change along with legal reform. The entire nation has a role to play. The first move, however, belongs to Washington. Mr. President?
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