Obama's conspicuous silence on guns

February 01, 2011|By Jules Witcover

While President Barack Obama is urging Americans to focus on "winning the future" with talk of job-creating innovation in the spirit of John F. Kennedy's "Sputnik moment," he has been conspicuously silent on a pressing issue of the present.

Though in his State of the Union address he lamented last month's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, and lauded the heroic acts of those who prevented worse damage, he had nothing to say about the assault weapon used by the shooter.

To describe the semiautomatic handgun loaded with a multi-bullet cartridge as an assault weapon would no doubt trigger the ire of extreme pro-gun advocates. But simple common sense justifies the label. The deadly scene in Tucson was not some skeet-shooting range; living beings were on the receiving end of the rapid-fire barrage.

White House officials say the president will be saying something about gun control later on. One translation: He didn't want to resurrect the old argument over guns and the Second Amendment while he was making his inspirational pitch to, as Kennedy used to say, "get this country moving again."

If ever there was an opportunity, however, to at least sound a call for reinstitution of the ban on assault weapons, the Tucson calamity was it. Instead, Mr. Obama's new White House political adviser, David Plouffe, said on NBC News: "He's going to address this. It's a very important issue and I know there's going to be a lot of debate on the Hill."

Back in November 2008, Mr. Obama's then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, now off in Chicago running for mayor, had this advice: "You never want a serious crisis go to waste. ... Things that we had postponed for too long ... are now immediate and must be dealt with. This crisis provides the opportunity for us ... to do things that you could not do before."

But perhaps Mr. Obama's strategists have more in mind what another White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, said in September 2002, about why the Bush administration had waited until then to make its case for an invasion of Iraq. Mr. Card told The New York Times of the value of timing: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

After Mr. Obama's State of the Union speech, Vice President Joe Biden, on "PBS NewsHour," said the Justice Department and the president were looking at what "some of the suggestions are relative to how to deal with what is deemed by most Americans as, you know, not appropriate or consistent with the Second Amendment, which we strongly support."

So much for swallowing the Supreme Court's decision against the argument that the right to bear arms was intended for the maintenance of state militias in Revolutionary times. Mr. Biden, however, reminded host Jim Lehrer that earlier, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he had authored the ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004.

Mr. Lehrer asked him: "In light of the Tucson tragedy, are you in favor of federal legislation that would ban the sale of these multiround cartridges, holders? ... If the president asks you, the answer is going to be, yes, ban them, right?" Mr. Biden dodged, saying that if his advice to Mr. Obama was "going to have any impact, it shouldn't be delivered to him through a news program."

Well, Mr. Lehrer pressed, "Why didn't the president even mention that in his State of the Union address?" Mr. Biden replied: "Why didn't the president mention mental health? ... (T)here's a thousand things that could have legitimately been mentioned. ... My guess is that ... he did not want to get into this blame-game issue and have it divert from ... the empathy for those who have passed, the prayers and help of them who have survived and trying to make it, like Congresswoman Giffords."

At the very least, Mr. Obama should need no more time to follow Mr. Biden's earlier lead and call for restoring the ban on assault weapons. He certainly should move to impose one on those multi-round cartridge clips of the sort that mowed down 19 people in a flash, killing six of them on that deplorable day.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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