President Obama: Now is Not the Time to Lead
My CNN column focuses on what's needed on guns: a social movement, not presidential action:
Monday will be a day of mourning for the slain schoolchildren of Newtown, Connecticut. Then what? Some are urging President Barack Obama to lead a national campaign for tighter control of firearms.
Bad idea. If the president -- any president -- inserts himself into the gun debate, he will inevitably polarize it. Supporters of the president will rally, but opponents of the president will become more obdurate. Because the president has many items on his agenda, and often needs the votes of Democrats from districts where pro-gun feeling runs strong, his opponents will probably outlast him.
Presidential leadership on guns will most likely fail for another reason, one that comes from a darker and grimmer place in American culture.
I've written before at CNN about the paradoxes of American gun ownership.
Here's one more such paradox: Obama has done literally nothing to restrict the (large and growing) rights of gun owners. President Bill Clinton signed two important pieces of gun control legislation and issued many restrictive executive orders; Obama has not so much as introduced even one.
Yet the election of Obama has triggered an angry reaction among gun owners fiercer than anything seen under Clinton. Between 1960 and the late 1990s, there occurred a gradual decline in the percentage of American homes that contain a gun, from about one-half to about one-third.
(This trend is at least partly explained by the decline of hunting as a sport. In 2011, about 6% of Americans aged 16 or over went hunting even once in the year. )
In 2009, however, that trend away from guns abruptly went into reverse. Gun buying spiked in the Obama administration, pushing the share of households with a gun all the way back up to 47%, near the 1960 peak, even as crime rates tumbled to the lowest levels ever recorded, making guns less necessary than ever to self-defense. Black Friday 2012 set a one-day record for gun sales.
What's going on?
People who buy guns for self-defense do not look only to the statistics for information about the dangers they face. They are guided by their own perceptions, and often their own misperceptions. By the numbers, Obama's America is probably the safest America ever.
But in the imaginations of millions of people, Obama's America is threatened by social instability. For many, the president himself is the leading symbol of the changes they fear. The more the president leads the campaign for gun control, the more hopeless that campaign will be.
Instead, progress to more rational gun laws must be led from outside the political system. Look at the success of the campaign against drunken driving.
In 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was struck and killed by a drunken driver. That driver had recently been arrested for another driving under the influence offense, but he remained on the road to kill again. Cari's mother, Candice, threw herself into the cause of stopping drunken driving. A powerful organizer, she founded a group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that not only changed laws at the federal and state level, but also changed the larger cultural context.
Forty years ago, the hugely popular entertainer, Dean Martin, made giggling jokes about being drunk at the wheel. Today, in millions of American homes, workplaces and restaurants, "friends don't let friends drive drunk" has replaced "one for the road."
This is the model for the future campaign against dangerous weapons.
That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties -- Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.