5:53 PM EST, January 16, 2013
It's "game on" between President Barack Obama and the gun lobby.
With parents of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim in his audience Wednesday, Mr. Obama embraced a cause — making the nation less vulnerable to gun violence — that may prove to be the most politically difficult of his presidency.
He doesn't just pay lip service to the cause, as so many Democrats have since suffering staggering losses at the polls in 1994 after voting in favor of a ban on assault weapons. The words "gun control" have scarcely passed their lips ever since.
Mr. Obama, rather, has reached down and grabbed this electrified third rail of American politics. Fate presented him few options, really. The slaughter of innocents at Newtown happened on his watch. But he might have been cautious in his reaction — and, to his everlasting credit, he hasn't been.
He quickly appointed Vice President Joe Biden to come up with options and promised timely action on a plan to address the broad epidemic of gun violence.
On Wednesday, saying "We've suffered too much pain," and noting that 900 people in this country have died by gun since the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre, Mr. Obama unveiled a public advocacy and education campaign meant to change hearts and minds about gun violence.
Here, in brief, are major elements of the president's plan:
•Require universal background checks for anyone buying a gun to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
•Restore the ban on military-style assault weapons, ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and ban possession of armor-piercing bullets. Nobody needs that much firepower for hunting.
•Direct the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence.
•Make schools safer by helping communities that want school resource officers and mental health professionals to hire them, and making certain every school has a comprehensive emergency management plan.
•Improve mental health services by making access to treatment and coverage available to the people — especially young people — who need it.
Some of what the president wants to do — such as creating a model school emergency plan — can be accomplished by executive action. Much of it — important elements such as banning high-capacity magazines — requires congressional action.
The plan is something a modern, stable democracy with a gun problem ought to be able to undertake without falling apart. And recent polls suggest that the needle has moved toward taking action since the Newtown tragedy.
Majorities of the public in several polls favor universal background checks on gun purchasers — an effective way of keeping guns out of the wrong hands — bans on high-capacity magazines and bans on the sale or possession of military-style assault weapons (in that order). That's heartening. Even the old NRA-er Ronald Reagan favored a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
But apparently the needle hasn't moved in Congress, which apparently is still in thrall to the National Rifle Association. The NRA is not buying any of the Obama program. The NRA feels no "moral obligation," to use Mr. Biden's words, to try to make things right in the wake of Newtown.
In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn't see why he should even bring up the assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans for votes in the Senate, since he figures they would lose in the Republican House anyway. That callous response to the president's program argues persuasively for new Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate.
But Mr. Reid is only a bit player, really.
"The only way we can change things is if the American people demand it," Mr. Obama said Wednesday with regard to his plan to reduce gun violence.
The ball is in the public's court.
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