Time For a Showdown: Why Obama Needs to Debate the NRA President on Live TV

Mr. President, there is something you can do to get gun legislation: debate NRA chief Wayne LaPierre. Millions would watch, and you’d change many minds.

10.04.15 4:01 AM ET

On Thursday, in the wake of yet another school shooting, President Obama went into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room—named for the victim of a would-be assassin’s bullet in 1981—and left reporters in stunned silence with the vehemence of his remarks.

“I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.”

Since the president is asking for our suggestions, I’ve got one:

Barack Obama should challenge Wayne LaPierre, longtime leader of the National Rifle Association, to a one-hour primetime televised debate.

“Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” Obama asked in 2012 after 20 children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

No, Mr. President, we are not powerless, and neither are you. But we do need to think harder and a bit more imaginatively about how to re-shape the debate.

I can hear the objections now: Why should the president lower himself to giving an equal platform to the odious head of the NRA? Why would Obama—who despises campaign debates—ever agree to it? Why do I imagine it would do any good in getting the bill passed that failed narrowly in the Senate in 2013?

To understand why a TV shootout (sorry, we’ll never be rid of the gun metaphors) is the best approach to jump-starting the debate, consider the normal pattern of response on gun issues.

After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Congress enacted a modest gun control package. In 1994, under prodding from James Brady (Ronald Reagan’s first press secretary) and his wife, Sarah, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Brady Bill, which requires background checks and a waiting period for gun purchases. More than 1.2 million attempted gun purchases by felons and the mentally unbalanced have been blocked by the background check system, potentially saving thousands of lives.

But in the last two decades, not even the most heinous mass shootings have led to closing the gun show loophole that evades background checks, much less major new legislation. Instead, we get a dreary and familiar public narrative: Grieving families meet with the president, who speaks at funerals about the senseless loss of life.

Democrats take to the floor of Congress for a few days or—in the case of Sandy Hook—weeks, while Republicans (and some Democrats, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who should know better) offer pathetic excuses for inaction.

Then: nothing. The last year has seen five major shootings and we now seem numb to them. Sometimes the coverage doesn’t even extend all the way through a news cycle.

Opponents of gun safety legislation (calling it “gun control” is leading with your chin) have lately tried to say the real problem is mental illness. Of course, as the president pointed out last week, every country in the world has mental illness but we are the only one with anywhere near this level of gun violence.

Unfortunately, when Obama makes this or other irrefutable arguments, few hear them. The remarks are made from the White House in the middle of the afternoon and have become sadly routine. Even Obama’s emotional reference to gun violence in his 2013 State of the Union Address wasn’t done in an electrifying enough venue to generate a huge volume of mail to legislators.

So we have the status quo: a country that overwhelmingly favors a gun bill but a Congress that opposes it. The explanation in this case isn’t just money. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has provided lots of money for ads in congressional districts, often leveling the playing field. The problem, instead, is that the people who oppose new laws are passionate about their views, and the people who favor them are not. The latter wring their hands for a few days but usually don’t even bother to write their members of Congress about it.

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The best way to change the dynamic is with America’s greatest product: entertainment. And the only entertainment that draws large TV audiences nowadays is live, unscripted drama or sports. Knowing they could expect entertainment with Donald Trump, 24 million Americans tuned into both GOP debates—more than seven times as many as watched in 2012. And those debates were only on one network—Fox News and later CNN.

When Obama faced Mitt Romney in their first debate in 2012, which was carried by several networks, 67 million people tuned in.

Powerful enough for ya?

No doubt the president’s advisers and ardent supporters will scoff at the suggestion that he lower himself in this way. They’ll say it’s unpresidential, gimmicky, and wrong to make Obama—who has been bold on this issue—suffer for the irresponsible slackers in Congress.

All true, but also unconvincing if our real goal is to put pressure on Congress to change the law.

I’d ask the president what is more important—your understandable disdain for debates and your sense of propriety about the office you hold, or using the bully pulpit in a new way that just might bring results?

Do you want to vent, or reinvent?

Do you want to dismiss out-of-hand an approach that would almost certainly light a fire under millions of people to contact Congress?

Imagine the pre-debate publicity, as we watch LaPierre try and likely fail to wriggle free. If he defers to some publicity-seeking pro-gun congressman or Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has bottled up dozens of bills designed to prevent gun violence, no problem. Then we’d read hundreds of stories about White House and the NRA going through debate prep, with their various arguments and counter-arguments hashed out in public. We’d have debate over the moderator, ground rules and sponsorship. The press would love every minute of it, while keeping the gun safety issue front and center for a change.

Barack Obama has been a much better president than generally assumed. But in his first term he was sometimes too diffident, too above the fray, to drive his agenda. Now he’s ready for anything.

“It is not the critic who counts,” Theodore Roosevelt, one of Obama’s favorite presidents, famously said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again.”

Mr. President, you can bet that Teddy would have descended into this arena—the only powerful arena we have—were he living in our age. So should you.