Barack Obama’s announcement that he has given Vice President Joe Biden one month to come up with a formula of action to curtail the proliferation of battlefield assault rifles and ammunition for them produces a ray of hope too long missing in our increasingly violent culture.
It is too bad that he had to wait until the death of 20 little children and six of their brave protectors to get religion on this subject. But in defense of his own seeming tardiness on the issue during the first four years of his tenure, he listed a number of other subjects that have kept him busy. Not mentioned but high up on that list was his obvious concern about taking on the powerful gun lobby during an election year. Al Gore did that and lost his home state of Tennessee and the presidency 12 years ago. That object lesson has not been lost on Obama and every other politician.
To his credit, however, the president seems willing now with no concern about re-election to capture and hold this moment of national outrage and grief to bring some sanity into a society that often seems to revere weapons of mass destruction over nearly anything else. It is a huge task, but one for which he can only be admired even if he was late to the conclusion that this, above all, is a priority.
The plan seems to be for Biden to produce a policy initiative to be outlined during Obama’s State of the Union address after consulting with the Cabinet and outside interests — governors, mayors, members of Congress and presumably even those who advocate no gun restrictions whatsoever, including the National Rifle Association, which has been the scourge of gun opponents in and out of the national and state legislatures. After several days of clearly stunned silence, the NRA has expressed a willingness to discuss preventive measures.
The predictable list of new restrictions would include not only banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons like the Bushmaster .223 that was used to massacre the children and teachers in Newtown’s elementary school, but the fuel that runs them, the ammunition in expanded clips. Also, the president indicated that no one buying firearms should be excluded from a background check.
That means closing the gun show loophole that allows merchants to sell weapons from bazookas to pistols instantly without vetting the customer to see if he is in a prohibited category covering convicted felons and those with a recorded history of mental illness, a much more difficult group to detect.
There are a number of other steps that might come out of this initiative without doing violence to the constitutional guarantees of the Second Amendment — actions that don’t restrict the right to bear arms but guard the public institutions from the kind of events that occurred in Connecticut and Aurora, Colo. and Portland, Ore., in the last six months. In its most recent ruling on the subject, the Supreme Court, while sanctifying the individual right to own a firearm, left plenty of room for controlling where, when and how.
As important to the effort of developing a substantial proposal is the public itself. For anything meaningful to be successful, Americans from all walks and beliefs on this issue must not let the memory of what happened at Sandy Hook fade into inaction as it has in so many similar instances. That would be a tragedy as large as the horrifying incident itself.
To assure this initiative doesn’t lose momentum, the president has ordered Biden to move quickly to take advantage of the atmosphere that already has begun to produce a growing understanding that these weapons have no place in our society outside the battlefield. It has never been more imperative for all Americans, even those who own and covet firearms, to realize the dangers here. It will be tough, but finally a president has said “enough” and every thinking citizen should echo that demand.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.