Clinton should use bully pulpit to fight gun lobby

April 23, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Only hours after the latest schoolhouse massacre in Colorado, President Clinton, the man in search of a legacy to lift his scandal-scarred presidency, went on television to let the American people see him feel their pain.

Haltingly, about the best he had to offer by way of addressing the tragedy was to say Americans have to reach out and tell their children "to express their anger with words and not actions."

He declined to say much more then because, he said in the somber tones he always emits on such occasions, he did not want to intrude on the grief of the victimized families. The next morning, he basically said more of the same.

What he did not say is what he surely knows, and every American with an ounce of common sense knows -- that the bottom-line problem is not uncontrolled anger, but the fact that this country, almost alone in the civilized world, is gun crazy.

Short on action

The millions of guns, legal and illegal, that flood America are accidents waiting to happen. But, as usual with Mr. Clinton, he substitutes words for actions in a situation where actions are demanded. Last year, he gave lip service to legislation that would penalize adults who allow their children access to guns used in violent acts and provide more money for gun violence prevention in the schools.

But, says Naomi Paiss of Handgun Control, "it would be very helpful for the president to address the larger issue of gun ownership among certain elements in this society, and rally the mothers and fathers of the country to the dangers to their children as they go to school everyday."

At the heart of the national problem is the powerful gun lobby headed by the National Rifle Association, which uses its money and influence either to intimidate members of Congress to oppose tougher gun control laws or to misinform them about the Second Amendment dealing with "the right to bear arms."

Through its current president, actor Charlton Heston, the NRA continues to claim that the Second Amendment guarantees an absolute right, when lower courts have repeatedly ruled that the amendment refers to the raising of militias.

NRA claims

Mr. Heston has gone so far as to argue that the Second Amendment is more important than the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and assembly, because the right to be armed is the ultimate protection for free speech.

If Mr. Clinton wants to demonstrate the sort of leadership that can create a positive legacy for himself, he should confront this issue directly, and in the process the grip the NRA holds on Congress.

The Supreme Court has never ruled clearly and definitively on whether or not the Second Amendment guarantees an absolute right to bear arms. Rather, it has declined to review any of the lower-court decisions that have upheld the right of communities to put restraints on gun ownership or bar it altogether.

The gun lobby, for all its breast-beating about the absolute right, hasn't sought to get a specific, definitive ruling from the Supreme Court, but neither has the anti-gun forces.

Mr. Clinton should direct his attorney general to find a way to get a test case to the Supreme Court that will set the constitutional record straight.

Meanwhile, an estimated 12 million guns are sold nationwide every year. Mr. Clinton, from a shooting sports state, could provide a particularly influential voice against this madness.

How many more Littletons will it take for him to show real leadership? He offered all the same platitudes a year ago after the similar Jonesboro tragedy. Mr. Clinton now has less than two years to do something truly significant for which to be remembered positively. Even as he is focused on Kosovo, he should be making war at home on this gun madness.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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