President Barack Obama moved with admirable dispatch in launching a process Wednesday aimed at quick action on gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The president was both sensible and specific. Yet the real test will be whether he can seize the moment while the nation is still attentive. It won’t be easy. He will almost certainly face opposition to any legislation from the powerful gun owners and manufacturers lobby.
Obama correctly described the problem as larger than firearms. He alluded to the need to make access to mental health care “at least as easy as access to a gun.” He referred to the glorification of violence and guns in American popular culture. These thoughts have run through everyone’s mind in the days since Adam Lanza’s rampage, and they deserve a soul-searching national debate.
Obama singled out three areas where concrete actions can be taken to limit the spread of weapons similar to the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that Lanza used to mow down his victims. The first would be to reinstate the ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons, which expired in 2004. The second would be to prohibit the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips that enable an assailant to kill more people faster. The third would be to close a loophole that permits the sale of weapons at gun shows without full background checks. All of this can be done, Obama pointed out, without damaging the Second Amendment or infringing on the activities of responsible gun owners.
The president asserted that a “majority” of Americans support these measures, but public-opinion surveys show that it is not a large majority. Slightly more than half of those questioned in recent polls favor the assault-weapon ban, and about 6 in 10 would outlaw the high-capacity ammunition clips.
These sentiments can shift. A moment like this – a time when people are moved by tragedy and gripped by urgency – is often fleeting. Obama and those in Congress who share his goals must not miss this window. Obama seems to sense this, promising specific proposals “without delay” and to advance them in his State of the Union address.
The Justice Department drew up a list of recommendations last year to reduce gun violence – proposals that the president could implement by executive order, without waiting for Congress – but the ideas were shelved until after the election. We hope that Vice President Joe Biden, who has been put in charge of the administration’s effort, will immediately pull them off the shelf.
Obama reminded us anew that the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., was caused by an individual wielding a military-style weapon. These firearms were intended for battlefields, not for self-defense or hunting. We agree with the president that “we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war.”
If swiftly turned into law of the land, that would be a start toward responding to the horror of last Friday’s killings.