Obama goes big on gun control, but can he deliver?

January 18, 2013

The first general reaction to President Barack Obama's package of gun control ideas seems to be criticism that it's too ambitious. Predictions are being heard that he will fall far short of his aspirations and even fail to restore the ban on assault weapons, which Congress allowed to lapse in 2004.

Even gun-control advocates speculate that the most that Mr. Obama may be able to achieve on the proposals fashioned by Vice President Joe Biden's task force will be limits on ammunition clips and magazines used on such weapons, along with more comprehensive background checks on gun buyers.

At the very least, this approach can blunt the customary NRA complaint that the federal government is trying to take away the guns of law-abiding citizens, including hunters and sporting target shooters. Early polls indicate these steps have wide public support.

Seeking to restore the flat assault-weapons ban, many argue, will only assure congressional rejection, especially by non-urban Republicans and many Democrats from the Western states. Yet the president has decided go for the full ban of rapid-firing semi-automatic devices, many of which were originally intended for battlefield use or designed to look like them.

If only for public-relations purposes, Mr. Obama is right seek the whole package, including the assault weapons ban he has always said he favors. If the public outrage expressed a month ago when the 20 grade-school kids were mowed down by one such weapon is to have staying power, he must give it full-throated voice in the coming days.

There is no question that the NRA is digging in for its strongest and costliest defense of the Second Amendment as it interprets it, as an all-out guarantee of the right to bear arms. Never mind that even the leader of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, has acknowledged that legitimate limits can be placed on the use of guns.

One indication of the NRA's willingness to take on Mr. Obama is a new television ad noting that his children receive Secret Service protection at all times; this makes him an "elitist hypocrite," the ad alleges, because his kids have it when ordinary kids don't. One wonders whether the NRA representative attending one of Mr. Biden's recent meetings voiced that complaint.

The Biden task force also expressed valid concern over the threat of persons with signs of mental illness having access to firearms. The NRA and other critics of stronger gun control seem to share this concern, although they cite it as a way to brush off the central and obvious problem: that millions of unaccounted-for guns are in circulation.

President Obama in his re-election campaign declared that the only way to change Washington's old ways is from the outside. Accordingly, he has been stirring grass-roots America to demand that members of Congress listen to their constituents' voices and take stiffer action against the gun violence.

Those voices have reached new urgency and greater numbers as a result of the Newtown massacre, the latest example of the mindless culture that continues to take a toll on the most innocent of citizens, whether they are grade-schoolers at Sandy Hook, teenagers at Columbine, college students at Virginia Tech or moviegoers in Aurora.

In Mr. Obama's second inaugural address on Monday, he will have no better opportunity to make his pitch to the millions of voters who will listen to him on television, and then to follow up soon thereafter in his first State of the Union speech of his second term. There he will be speaking directly to the men and women of Congress who can do the most, and the soonest, to deal with this national horror and disgrace.

If the president fails to do so before this captive live audience, with the sort of new toughness he has shown in sparring over the raising the debt ceiling, he will face -- and deserve -- allegations of being all talk and no spine on the issue. There is no greater challenge to Congress right now than bringing good sense and reason to this great stain on America's image around the world.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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