This morning, children – young children – were killed in their elementary school by a gunman in quiet, suburban Connecticut. Three days ago, holiday shoppers were killed in a mall in suburban Portland. Two weeks ago, an NFL linebacker murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself at his team’s stadium.
Each of these tragedies has spurred calls for a national conversation on America’s culture of guns and violence. It’s a conversation that inevitably never takes place, and it’s one that only President Obama can make happen.
The White House on Friday said it was too soon to talk about gun policy. “There is, I’m sure, will be, rather, discussion of the usual Washington policy debates,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “But I don’t think that day is today.”
Yet Washington, and Obama, have had other days. After Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, killed a woman and then himself on Dec. 1, calls for a renewed gun control discussion came from Jason Whitlock, who writes for Fox Sports, and sportscaster Bob Costas, who cited Whitlock's column on NBC's Sunday Night Football telecast the next day. They did not, notably, come from Obama.
Obama has been given several sad opportunities to address gun violence. In Tucson, he spoke of "a national conversation" commencing, "not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system." After an attack on a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee, Obama said similar events "are happening with too much regularity for us not to do some soul-searching to examine additional ways that we can reduce violence."
But that soul-searching did not happen in Obama's first term. And before Friday’s shooting in Newtown, few thought Obama would devote political capital to any sort of serious push for new gun-control legislation. Though the National Rifle Association's power has waned from its peak, Republicans remain firmly on the NRA's side while Democrats remain deeply scarred by the gun-rights group's success in ousting pro-gun-control legislators. It will be days before we know whether a massacre at an elementary school will be enough to force Obama and Congress to act.
"We're optimistic about what we have the potential to accomplish,” Dan Gross, who heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said before Friday’s shooting. “We do think, in order for change to occur, there needs to be stronger leadership on this issue out of the White House."
With the stark exception of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who funded a super PAC this year that took on some pro-gun members of Congress, few make the case for gun control on the national stage.
"President Obama has called for commonsense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens and improve public safety by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them under existing law," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said, also before Friday’s shooting. "But the president has also been clear about the need to address the problem of violence not just in the wake of high-profile tragedies and not just in terms of gun laws or the role of government, but by working in a comprehensive way with local officials, schools, parents and communities."
There's a reality gap in the president's rhetoric. Better enforcing existing laws — say, against a felon purchasing a handgun — requires closing loopholes and establishing a better background check system. In other words, it will take new laws to get the old laws working.
Obama avoided gun control at virtually every turn during the 2008 campaign. On those rare occasions when he has had to confront the issue, Obama has said he supports an assault weapons ban and stricter enforcement of laws already on the books — but not before he takes pains to begin with a dependent clause reiterating his own fidelity to a broad reading of the Second Amendment.
"We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We've got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves," Obama said this year during a town-hall-style debate on Long Island, when asked what he had done to limit the availability of assault weapons. "[M]y belief is that, A, we have to enforce the laws we've already got, make sure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We've done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we've got more to do when it comes to enforcement."
When he talks about enforcing existing laws, Obama can point to his administration's record of forcing "more thorough and complete" background checks on anyone hoping to buy a gun, Lehrich said. And the administration can claim some success — violent crime has fallen every year Obama has been in the White House, according to FBI statistics.
Gun sales have spiked during Obama's first four years in office, prompted by fears that the president will take steps to restrict future purchases or, in the minds of conspiracy theorists, orchestrate some plot to rob Americans who still cling to their guns and religion. The ironic truth is that the administration hasn't done anything to justify those fears.