David Frum

01.10.13

Please Stay Away from the Gun Debate, Mr. President

The President reacts as John Brennan briefs him on the details of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said during a TV interview that this was the worst day of his Presidency." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) ()

Last night, a TV interviewer asked me: "Can gun control be a win for the president?" I answered that the more the gun issue is perceived as an issue the president can "win," the more likely it is that he will "lose." Real change on this issue must come from outside the political system. Which is why yesterday's gun forum chaired by Vice President Biden fills me with foreboding.

I've written before about the dangers of White House leadership on the gun issue.

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. …

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.

By putting the president's face on the proposal, the administration consumes the oxygen that otherwise would have sustained new citizens' groups, like that headed by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. By talking about executive orders if legislation fails, the administration endorses a strategy that condemns gun safety measures in advance as an overbearing scheme by out-of-touch political elites. I fear this will all end badly.