Sunday January 20, 2013

Specifics aside, the most significant aspect of President Obama’s ambitious plan for dramatically reducing gun violence in America is that it put advocates of gun reform clearly on the offensive. For far too long, proponents have nibbled around the edges of reform while the NRA and its kept politicians screamed "no" to the most benign of proposals. In the wake of Newtown, Connecticut, however, the question is no longer "Why should we pass major gun reforms?" but "Why shouldn’t we?"

The NRA’s empty catchphrases of "enforce the gun laws we have" and "guns don’t kill people, people do" have never sounded more hollow than they have since last month’s slaughter of first graders. Jim Wallace, the executive director of the Massachusetts Gun Owners’ Action League, was in Pittsfield last week fretting about the civil rights of gun owners. Didn’t the children of Newtown and their teachers have a civil right not to be massacred in their classrooms? Only in America are citizens supposed to accept that they may be gunned down in classrooms, malls, movie theaters and workplaces so others can enjoy their "right" to possess military-style assault weapons and similar firearms designed to kill quickly and efficiently. That must change.

While it is true that no massacre however hideous will motivate most House Republicans to address the nation’s gun sickness, there are actions the newly re-elected president can and must take unilaterally. He also has the advantage of the bully pulpit and an electorate on his side. Roughly 60 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws in the wake of Newtown according to polls, and majorities favor a nationwide ban on the military-style, rapid-fire weapons like the one employed in Newtown. More than 80 percent of adults want federal background checks for people buying weapons at gun shows, which now provide easy, one stop shopping for potential terrorists, lunatics, aggrieved boyfriends and others who shouldn’t own anything beyond a popgun. The NRA and congressional Republicans are increasingly out of step with mainstream America in their knee-jerk opposition to moderate, sensible gun law laws, like those offered by the president.

Second Amendment zealots in Congress have long abused the First Amendment by squelching research into gun mayhem and preventing the dissemination of the little research that has been done. Mr. Obama is issuing a memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control, which had been banned by a Republican Congress from using funds to explore gun violence, to explore those very issues. What is the NRA afraid the CDC will discover about the peculiarly American disease of large scale gun violence?

Measures should be taken to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill, but in the case of Newtown, the obviously disturbed gunman used a military style weapon purchased legally by his mother. (There is no asking her why as her son used it to kill her.) It all boils down to guns and access to them, as no psychotic individual or teenager agitated by video games can shoot someone without one.

Given the inevitable opposition to national reform from gun extremists, the states must press forward. New York state just passed tough new laws on military-style weapons and ammunition. Massachusetts wants to strengthen its laws, in part by limiting gun purchases to one a month, which the Gun Owners’ Action League opposes. Hunters don’t need a gun a month but gun traffickers do, and in its knee-jerk opposition to gun reform the league is defending those who turn urban streets into shooting galleries.

Moms, mayors, responsible gun owners and everyone sickened by Newtown and past gun massacres must back the president and push Congress into action. It will not be easy, but momentum is building.