Much of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address this week was a fairly ho-hum affair, with the usual laundry list of programs and goals (most so familiar that it could have been a recycled campaign speech from 2012, or maybe 2008) and the customary reaction of cheering supporters and stone-faced critics. Until he turned to the subject of gun control.
What had seemed routine, even pro forma, suddenly turned electric. Invoking speech attendees including the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed in Chicago just days after the 15-year-old performed in the presidential inauguration; former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered a gunshot to the head two years ago; and relatives of the Newtown, Conn. school shooting victims, he called on Congress to vote on gun control.
"They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," the president declared, his voice and cadence suddenly more charged and evangelical than the bland presidential tones customary for such occasions. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote."
It was a powerful moment. Conservatives can sneer all they'd like that asking for a vote is a low bar compared to expecting Congress to actually approve gun control. But Mr. Obama doesn't have the luxury of living in a world where Congress necessarily records a vote on bills that set sensible limitations on gun ownership like universal background checks or restrictions on the size of magazines or the sale of assault weapons.
Could lawmakers, even those under the thumb of the National Rifle Association, look into the faces of victims like the couple Mr. Obama introduced to the world as "Nate and Cleo" — the parents of Hadiya — and deny them a vote? Here's a clue: Republicans couldn't even bring themselves to applaud that line. Apparently, casting a "no" vote on background checks that would help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously insane doesn't appeal to these Second Amendment "defenders" either.
Here's where Mr. Obama is forced to operate. He's living in a world where NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre would write a commentary within hours of the State of the Union warning Americans of a dystopian future of terrorists, Latin American drug gangs, South Brooklyn looters, debt riots, civil unrest and natural disaster, a "hellish" landscape that will require everyone to be armed to the teeth. Add an Australian accent and some rubber tire shoulder pads and it might have been a pitch for a "Mad Max" sequel, albeit a particularly racist one.
"We will not surrender. We will not appease. We will buy more guns than ever," he promised.
Please, Mr. LaPierre, tell us again how closing the loophole that allows some gun buyers to avoid a background check through private sales is an unreasonable assault on our constitutional rights. And say it loud enough that the Pendletons, Ms. Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, the astronaut and decorated Navy veteran, and all those families who lost children at Sandy Hook can hear. That's a big group, so you'll have to speak loudly.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting in mid-December, about 1,800 Americans have been killed by guns, at last count. Are pro-gun lawmakers — and that includes red state Democrats clearly fearful of the NRA, too — really so unmoved by these tragedies that they cannot even countenance an up-or-down vote on these modest protections, all of them endorsed by a majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls?
President Obama's plea that the victims deserve a vote struck an emotional chord not simply because these awful shootings are fresh in our memory but also because we must acknowledge that we live in a country where paranoid gun-rights absolutists can so easily hold gun violence legislation hostage in Congress. We weep for the victims, but we weep for ourselves, too. On this divisive issue, all of us deserve a vote.