A faint promise of hope and change filtered through the Washington chatter in the days preceding President Barack Obama's swearing in for a second term.
It came not from the president but from an organization dead set to quash a defining goal of his presidency: shifting the nation's attitudes about the Second Amendment and gun control.
Unbelievably, the morning after Obama outlined his goals for curbing gun violence, there was the National Rifle Association, tentatively poking out an olive branch. NRA President David Keene told CBS interviewers that his organization is not opposed to increased criminal background checks for gun purchases, a key proposal of the president's gun law reform package.
At last, evidence that the NRA is not completely deaf to the wishes of the American public and even of its own membership. An estimated 40 percent of gun purchases now occur with no criminal background checks. Requiring such checks on all gun sales, including private party transactions, would bring much needed scrutiny. Upward of 90 percent of the American public supports the idea, according to recent polling, as do 85 percent of households with an NRA member.
Before the slaughter of a first-grade class at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, it was easy for members of the NRA, and most Americans, to remain blissfully ignorant of how unregulated gun selling is in the U.S. That's not the case anymore.
You can't buy a car from your neighbor without transferring title and re-registering plates and tags. So it's nonsense that a person could complete the same transaction for a lethal weapon without notifying government authorities. Keene's admission seemed to signal that the NRA had faced the cold, hard truth and now had decided to save itself from going the way of the dinosaur.
Unfortunately, Keene quickly reverted to the NRA's tired script. He brought out all the gun lobby's well-rehearsed red herrings: The president is wrong to focus on banning particular guns. The problem is school safety, not guns. The problem is mental health, not guns.
But the problem is guns, especially the highly lethal variety with large-capacity magazines. Yes, let's talk about better access to mental health services, but that leads to conversations about how to keep freely available deadly weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. Yes, let's talk about school safety. But that leads to the question of what makes schools so unsafe. Guess what: it's guns. Guns also make it much easier for 19,000 Americans to commit suicide every year.
Do you see a connection? Violence, whether perpetrated by the sane or the insane, whether it harms children or innocent bystanders or the suicidal, is made much easier and much more frequent and deadly thanks to America's lax attitudes about gun control.
Americans may begin shifting their views on guns, but the NRA will fight that cultural shift at every step. It helps that the organization has the backing of the nearly $12 billion gun industry.
Keene's comment on background checks, however encouraging, does little to mitigate the damage the NRA has done to the American political system, and it signals no departure from the association's determination to undermine the president's authority to address gun violence.
In an attempt to upstage the White House measures, the NRA rushed to post a video on the Web calling Obama an "elitist hypocrite" because armed guards and Secret Service protect his two daughters. In this offensive and ham-fisted piece of agitprop, the NRA had the gall to ask why that protection was necessary when the same privilege isn't extended to all schoolchildren.
Here's why, in part: The NRA for decades has given vent to the kind of aggression its former president Charlton Heston expressed so colorfully when he raised a musket in defiance and bellowed, "from my cold, dead hands!"
Never mind reality. Never mind that the federal government had no interest in taking the actor's weapon, much less harming him to do so. The NRA continues to prompt that irrational fear. It's sort of an institutional imperative. Armageddon talk (along with heavy membership discounts) has recently swelled the association's numbers. And skyrocketing gun and ammo sales, also stoked by paranoia, certainly gladden the NRA's corporate donors.
The NRA must know that its fear-mongering stokes insecure and unstable minds, gets them het up with dark thoughts about the president. Yet it wonders why Obama's daughters need Secret Service protection.
Look in the mirror, my friends.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her email address is email@example.com.