Gun Control Now

12.15.12

Mr. President, Time to Lead

Gun control needs to become a voting issue for millions. Only one person can make that happen.

When can stricter gun-control laws ever pass? We know exactly when: When 60 senators and 218 members of the House of Representatives are willing to vote for them, and not a moment before. The bleak truth is that we are a long, long, long way from that moment, or at least we were until Friday morning. If anything can change the politics of guns, surely this unspeakable event can. But Barack Obama is going to have to resolve to answer the demand that history has placed on him and spend some (maybe a lot) of his political capital on the issue.

We’re about to endure a wrenching week—the week before Christmas no less—reading about these children. Seeing pictures of their beautiful faces, watching their parents submit to those morbid interviews that television makes its business on these grim occasions; hearing what the children were waiting for Santa to bring them. Surely, this has to change things.

I would love to think so. But let’s not kid ourselves. In political terms, the odds against change are high, and the reason comes down to this. Right now, there are a few million people for whom gun rights are what is called a voting issue, which is just what it sounds like—an issue that people actively vote on, that is in their heads at the moment they pull the lever. These are the members of the National Rifle Association. The National Rampage Association, as Bob Shrum puts it elsewhere on this site. The National More Dead Children Association would be another way to put it today, because that is in effect what the organization supports.

Video screenshot

President Obama teared up in his press conference about the Newtown shooting, saying that "our hearts are broken today."

For how many people is gun control a voting issue? For all intents and purposes, none. Oh, a few thousand; the people who work directly on the issue, and some parents who’ve lost their children. But that is about it. The scales are badly imbalanced, and until they’re closer to in balance, we won’t be able to get a law that, for example, permits police to come knock on the door of someone who buys 600 rounds of ammo online, as the Aurora, Colorado shooter did, and ask him about his plans and purposes.

So, how can that imbalance be changed? Only through the two traditional ways. The first is grassroots activism that has a lot of money behind it. Any rich people who care about gun violence out there? Now is the moment to write those checks to the Brady Campaign and other groups that work on this issue, to organize large-scale public-relations campaigns to frame the issue and get people angry and motivated. No change has ever happened in this country without a broad base of support out there, and no twitchy senator or member of Congress is going to vote against the NRA unless he thinks he can do so and survive the next election.

The second is that politicians have to lead, and that starts with Obama of course. He was right yesterday not to push a political agenda; yesterday was just a day to express the nation’s grief. But now is the time, starting next week.

He’s busy with a lot of other things. He needs to get his tax increase. He needs to win the debt-limit fight. He wants immigration reform, and the Latino groups that represent the voters who backed him so heavily won’t let him forget that or drop it.

But history has grabbed him by the lapels here. We’ve had 14 mass shootings in this country just since he became president. They’ve all been bad, but this is the one that demands that he stand up--the one that insists that if he does nothing, or does something cautious and half-hearted, he will be judged harshly by future historians for his failure to care about this.

He and he alone can help make this a voting issue for millions. He can do it in an almost nonpartisan way, which is in his comfort zone, talking about these children and the dozens of others whom our society right now regards an acceptable spoilage factor for “freedom”; asking why it should be the case that any regular citizen needs automatic weapons with extended magazines and the aforementioned right to buy limitless ammo with no questions asked.

Did I say he and he alone? Not quite right. I amend that to: He, along with Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg has the standing, the podium, and most crucially, the money to help make this a voting issue. The furious statement Bloomberg released yesterday is exactly right. The time for this fight is now. And only one person can lead it.