Will Obama Seize the Moment on Gun Control?

The Newtown massacre has pulled Obama into a leadership role on an issue he spent four years avoiding, says Eleanor Clift.

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President Obama’s promise of “meaningful action” in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., has opened the door to a long-overdue national discussion about gun safety, the term advocates use instead of gun control because it is less polarizing and at least in theory more achievable. A survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz last summer found that 74 percent of National Rifle Association members favor commonsense regulations.

The gunning down of 20 little children in their classroom has evoked such horror that it could be the tipping point that forces politicians to respond with more than words. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein got things going when she said on Meet the Press that she would introduce an assault-weapons ban on the first day of the new Congress in January.

Feinstein worked on the original ban that Congress passed in 1994, which President Clinton signed. The Republican-controlled Congress let the 10-year ban expire in 2004, and Democrats did little to revive it, blaming their loss of Congress in the 1994 midterm election on NRA opposition.

The question now is whether Democrats will back Feinstein and whether any moderate Republicans will join them. Feinstein has nothing to lose politically. She was just reelected to another six-year term in solidly blue California, which kept the ban against assault weapons in place, as did several other states, including New York and Massachusetts. The test is whether lawmakers step up in states and districts where gun rights are a priority. The school shooting in Columbine, Colo., in 1999 shocked the nation and spawned books and movies, but didn’t change gun laws. The shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords two years ago shook up the Congress, but didn’t make any impact on gun policy.

This time could be different. California Democrat George Miller told The Daily Beast that it is “highly likely” Congress will act. With schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls vulnerable to the lone gunman, “there are no islands of safety left,” he says. Assault weapons, high-volume ammunition clips, and more attention paid to mental illness are areas where even gun enthusiasts can agree on restraints. “None of us go into the field with high-volume weapons,” says Miller, who is a hunter, as are his sons and grandsons.

One lawmaker who could be an important voice is Michigan Democrat John Dingell. A former NRA board member, he worked on the 1994 assault-weapons ban, taking the heat from the NRA and resigning his seat in the process. Dingell believes gun rights are threatened when events like this happen, and at 86 years old, he might feel a concern about that legacy that could be a factor in his willingness to take a leadership role. “He would be an important voice,” says Miller. Recently redistricted, Dingell’s new district includes Ann Arbor, an area that would be supportive of tighter gun laws, which eases the politics for him.

In his first term, Obama signed a bill making it legal to carry concealed weapons in national parks. Events have now pulled him into a leadership role on an emotional and cultural issue that he spent four years avoiding. He will of course sign an assault-weapons ban if it reaches his desk. The question is how much political capital he will invest in getting it passed when he has other legislative fights looming. “This last event requires his full involvement,” says Miller.

New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son grievously wounded 20 years ago in a shooting incident on the Long Island Railroad, is calling on Obama to tighten existing gun laws through an executive order.

It’s too soon to know what course the White House might pursue. “There’s a lot of human emotion to get through before they get into the cold political calculations,” says Matt Bennett, a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. No one doubts where Obama’s heart is on the issue of gun safety, or his head too, for that matter, but Bennett points out that it took 10 years from the attempt on President Reagan’s life and the shooting in the head of Jim Brady, the press secretary, for Congress to pass the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, commonly known as the Brady Bill.

There is a huge gap between what the American public wants and what elected officials are prepared to deliver, with the NRA the stumbling block. “They’ve done the same thing on guns that Grover Norquist has done on taxes,” says Jim Kessler, also with Third Way, “and what they’ve done that’s smarter than Grover, and frankly the AFL-CIO, they say if you’re with us, we’re with you—and they’ve got a lot of Democrats.”

Kessler has worked on gun policy for 20 years. Americans for Gun Safety was the precursor to Third Way. He says guns are the only issue he can think of where the public-policy response for too long has been, “There’s nothing we can do.” There are things that can be done legislatively and also proactively by the gun industry. Kessler notes that if he loses his iPad, no one can use it because they don’t know his password. Why not have safeguards on guns so only the owner can use them? That and a ban on semiautomatic handguns, like the ones the shooter in Connecticut used, are not radical, out-of-reach proposals, at least not when viewed through the prism of grief. Where the debate will be once passions cool will reveal how much the politics have changed on Capitol Hill and whether the Democrats have the courage to seize the moment.