It is widely believed in Washington that there is no chance the gun lobby and the new Republican majority in the House would ever permit passage of the modest ideas for tightening America’s absurdly lax gun laws that have surfaced since the massacre in Tucson.
That may be true, but it is no reason for supporters of reasonable gun regulation not to put up a fight. Nor is it an excuse for the lack of principled presidential leadership on this issue. We are still waiting for President Obama to fulfill his promises on gun safety.
Mr. Obama ran for the White House calling for the restoration of the ban on assault weapons that Congress irresponsibly let expire in 2004. He has not pursued that goal, and so far, his voice is missing even from the call for less ambitious but necessary changes in gun laws. The country needs Mr. Obama to put his support behind a two-pronged approach that is directly relevant to the dynamics of gun violence we all saw at play in Tucson.
It begins with a proposed ban on the big volume ammunition magazines that added to the carnage not just in Arizona but also a long line of other mass shootings, including at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney, a staunch gun rights advocate, said last week that it might be time to reinstate the magazine-size rule, which was part of the discarded assault weapons ban. That would save lives without interfering with hunters or violating any constitutional right.
Mr. Obama ought to tell that to Congress and the public in his State of the Union address this week. The National Rifle Association will counter that Americans need high-capacity clips for self-defense. We’d like to hear how many times in the real world the life of an American, other than a police officer or a combat soldier, was endangered because of an inability to fire 30 shots in rapid succession without reloading. What we do know about is the grim, repetitive reality of mass shootings.
The pending gun agenda also includes plugging dangerous holes in the background check system to make it harder for people with emotional and drug abuse problems, like the Tucson shooter, to obtain weapons. Despite eroding public support for more strict rules, like a handgun ban, there is broad agreement on the need to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands.
Although facing a likely primary challenge from the right when he runs for re-election next year, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, voiced his continued support for banning assault weapons in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.
Another Republican, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, opposes banning the enlarged magazines. But on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Mr. Coburn expressed an interest in a bipartisan effort to create a new legal standard to “make sure people who are mentally ill cannot get and use a gun.” His interest in finding common ground is encouraging even though for the moment, at least, the fix is unclear.
One thing that could be usefully addressed is that many state records on disqualifying involuntary commitments and adjudicated mental instability are not being submitted to the federal background check system. Records of drug abuse or addiction also rarely make it into the system, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun policy group.
Asked last week about the administration’s positions on these matters, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the White House was focused on “the important healing process.” That is part of the president’s duties. So is protecting public safety.