President Obama made a strong opening push on actually advancing gun control legislation yesterday, calling for policy recommendations within a month, which he will then highlight in his State of the Union address and subsequently push for in Congress. While Obama has been painfully absent from the gun debate, failing to even mention the assault weapons ban for most of his first term, this is now about as proactive as he could possibly be.
At a White House press conference, he first invoked the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, but then crucially expanded his scope: he spoke of “what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future, but to reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day.” He closed by once again reminding people it’s not just Newtown:
Since Friday morning, a police officer was gunned down in Memphis, leaving four children without their mother. Two officers were killed outside a grocery store in Topeka. A woman was shot and killed inside a Las Vegas casino. Three people were shot inside an Alabama hospital. A 4-year-old was caught in a drive-by in Missouri and taken off life support just yesterday.
Each one of these Americans was a victim of the everyday gun violence that takes the lives of more than 10,000 Americans every year—violence that we cannot accept as routine.
So I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed the at preventing more tragedies like this. We won’t prevent them all, but that can’t be an excuse not to try. It won’t be easy, but that can’t be an excuse not to try.
Obama tasked Vice President Biden with heading the task force that will come up with the legislative recommendations, which is also encouraging: the National Rifle Association gave Biden an “F” rating as a Senator and has called him “the most anti-gun vice president in American history.”
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced a push for both new gun laws and increased mental health services. She tapped Representative Mike Thompson of California to lead the effort. At first blush it could be a troubling choice—Thompson is a gun-owner that served as head of the Sportsmen’s Caucus, and has previously co-sponsored legislation that would ban trigger locks and gun registration in the District of Columbia.
But a House source told me Thompson gave an eloquent speech in Tuesday’s caucus meeting, describing a change of heart on guns and a new desire to push for stronger safety measures. He echoed this in a statement yesterday, saying “I understand guns, their purpose and how they are used. Military-type assault weapons and assault magazines have no place on our streets or in our communities.” If Thompson can work on changing the minds of fellow moderates and gun owners, it could perhaps be a wise selection.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that low-bar measures to ban high-capacity clips and strengthen background checks could pass a Republican House, which will exist for at least the next two years. But even if the effort fails it starts potentially crucial momentum on the issue: if Republicans vote against common-sense gun control measures, and then find that to be a potent attack against them during the 2014 midterms, the gun control dynamics in Washington start to change.
Meanwhile, there’s movement at the state level too. The Buffalo News reported late yesterday that the New York state legislature might enter an unscheduled special session before Christmas to consider new gun control measures. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a likely 2016 contender, is reportedly eager to be the first in the nation to tackle this issue—he wants the state to pass an assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
It’s encouraging that a potential presidential nominee wants to use gun control in his favor. And New York State will be an interesting test case—though gun control may popular in New York City and Buffalo, there are very large, rural areas of the state where hunting is popular and gun-owners abound. If Cuomo can get real reforms passed by the legislature, it would be a promising sign of things to come.
Gun control advocates will have to battle “The Unbearable Elasticity of Gun Logic,” writes Todd Gitlin.