Obama goes after guns
President Obama is taking on one of the most contentious issues in American government.
Proving once again that events, many impossible to foresee, shape our politics, President Obama last week unveiled an ambitious package of gun control legislation that was not close to the top of his priority list two months ago.
Pressing his political advantage in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Obama proposed bans on military-style assault rifles and high-volume magazine clips, a vast expansion of background checks for gun buyers and tougher laws aimed at gun-traffickers.
The president also issued more than 20 orders directing executive branch officials to take additional steps aimed at making it harder for the mentally ill and criminals to gain access to firearms.
In making his announcement, Obama pledged that he and Vice President Joe Biden would campaign actively for the bill. Later, one of Obama's chief aides said the White House intends to work to pass his legislative package the same way it campaigned for Obama's re-election.
There is no question that Obama is riding high after winning his second term. That victory has left him free of concerns about offending specific voter blocs, in this case supporters of the Second Amendment. Still, there are limits to his influence.
As a matter of politics, he faces a huge challenge. As a matter of policy, the challenge is no less if he hopes to accomplish his intended effect.
A previous assault weapons ban was in place for 11 years (1994-2005) and was widely considered a failure.
Not least of the problems is properly defining what constitutes an assault weapon, the name given the semi-automatic military-style rifles whose features include detachable magazines, pistol grips and a collapsible stock. Firearms manufacturers routinely produce weapons that are mechanically similar to so-called assault rifles but without those distinct features.
Further, even though assault rifles are associated with a series of recent mass shootings, crime statistics show that the overwhelming number of firearm-related deaths stem from the use of handguns.
Still, there are areas of common ground around which people of good will can agree.
At the top of the list is stepped-up background checks of those who seek to purchase a firearm as well as restrictions aimed at minimizing gun trafficking.
Unfortunately, the most notable problem associated with gun control laws is that they have largely failed.
Even though Chicago outlawed the gun possession, it's the murder capital of the United States. Every weekend brings a new horror story of senseless violence caused by criminals who illegally possess firearms.
The ultimate question is whether whatever legislation is passed will be symbolic or substantive.
The previous assault weapons ban was mostly empty symbolism, and there's no reason to believe that another one will have any greater impact. Rigorous background checks, efforts to deny lawbreakers access to firearms, identifying and treating the mentally ill offer the most hope of addressing an obvious problem.
Gun control has proven to be an issue on which many people automatically take sides and proceed to talk past each other. That's already proven to be the case with respect to Obama's proposals.
As this debate proceeds, it will be important for those on various sides of the issue to lower their voices and remember that President Obama already has acknowledged that no legislative package can prevent future tragedies like the ones in Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, Colo. At best, he said, some of what he proposed might reduce the level of carnage. With that modest approach as the goal, President Obama and Congress can and should work together to find some solutions to this vexing problem.