When Vice President Joe Biden invited the National Rifle Association to the White House the other day to join in the Obama administration's post-Newtown talks on ways to counter gun violence, it was like letting the fox into the chicken coop.
The NRA sent an associate rather than its outspoken cheerleader, Wayne LaPierre, who famously first responded to the Newtown schoolroom mayhem by saying "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." That was how he launched his plan for putting armed security guards in every school in the land.
During the meeting, Mr. Biden put aside his often-freewheeling style of attack on those who differ with him and preached coming together and taking advantage of the heightened public concern to get something constructive done. He counseled his listeners not to "get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing." He promised to produce a broad administration package of proposals within days, with a plea for compromise on what was achievable.
The NRA's immediate response was to express disappointment "with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment." It accused the White House task force of "spending most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms holders -- honest, taxpaying, hard-working Americans." It said "we will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen."
Nothing was said in this terse statement about the discussions Mr. Biden was having in this and other meetings with business and civic groups about what to do regarding the availability of battlefield-like semi-automatic weapons of the sort used in the slaughter of the 20 children and six attending adults at the Connecticut grade school.
Instead, the NRA's written release said its representative had gone "prepared to have a meaningful conversation about school safety, mental health issues, the marketing of violence to our kids and the collapse of federal prosecutions of violent criminals." It was a long-form reiteration of the NRA's mantra that "guns don't kill people, people kill people."
The statement benignly noted that the NRA "is made up of over 4 million moms and dads, daughters and sons" and warned that it would be taking its case to members of Congress, where its money and scare tactics have been so effective in the past. Reports of record runs on gun shops by aroused believers have accompanied the Newtown tragedy and talk of the need for stronger controls.
The Biden task force talks have focused on the growth of rapid-firing semi-automatic weapons and multibullet magazine clips that no law-abiding hunter or target-shooter needs to amuse himself. On these, the NRA seems to have little or nothing to say other than to spout the Second Amendment.
The vice president is expected shortly to send the president a package focused on dealing with such assault weapons, including restoring the ban on them enacted by Congress in 1994 as part of a sweeping Biden anti-crime bill in the Senate. The ban was allowed to lapse 10 years later, thanks in part to NRA opposition.
The package is likely also to call for a tightening of background checks on would-be gun buyers at gun shows and elsewhere, and possibly executive orders by Mr. Obama not subject to congressional approval -- and less subject to NRA lobbying.
It's already been a month since the Newtown school shooting, and similar though less deadly incidents have occurred around the country. It's not as if the problem wasn't studied exhaustively even before that wrenching tragedy. Congress needs to take up at least the most conspicuous problem of battlefield weapons in wide circulation -- in the hands of citizens, law-abiding or otherwise -- and get them off the American market.
For too long, the NRA has used its scare tactics and its money to intimidate spineless members of Congress, and to herd pliable gun owners into going along. If the Newtown tragedy can't mobilize public sentiment for remedial action, nothing will.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.