Sunday February 17, 2013

President Obama’s wide-ranging State of the Union speech lacked the ardor of his inauguration speech last month, until he turned to the subject of gun violence in its final moments and adopted the rhythms of a preacher in declaring that those whose lives have been torn apart by guns "deserve a vote." This is not a vote that gun advocates will want to take, and when gun violence legislation reaches the House there will be attempts to dismiss it without a roll call on the grounds that "the votes aren’t there," which is the standard Washington way of avoiding having to actually go on the record.

That can’t happen this time. Every representative and senator must vote on gun control in the weeks ahead so Americans will know where they stand. And for the sake of history, where they stood.

The gun issue was front and center Tuesday night, beginning with the green ribbons worn by many congressmen in memory of the 20 children and six adults shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut, two months ago. Former Democratic Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, partially disabled after being shot in the head while meeting with constituents, was present in her new role as an advocate of laws curtailing gun violence. Sitting with first lady Michelle Obama were Nathaniel and Cleo-Cowley Pendleton, whose 15-year-old daughter Hadiya was gunned down in a Chicago park just three weeks after performing as a majorette at the president’s inauguration.


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Three Massachusetts mothers whose sons were fatally shot were in the gallery, guests of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressmen Edward Markey and John Tierney.

The arguments against taking any action at all to reduce gun violence continue to fly, although they are more like rationalizations than arguments. One can parse the definition of an assault weapon down to the atomic level without changing the reality that guns designed to kill quickly cannot do so if they are banned, as they are in most civilized countries. The tired claim that criminals will always have access to guns no matter what laws are passed is also defeated by the experience of countries with strict gun laws and by America’s experience with the now elapsed assault weapons ban. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, the use of assault weapons in crime had declined by more than two-thirds nine years after the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was passed.

The argument that America need only enforce the gun laws in place is as cynical as it is moldy because those making it surely know that the National Rifle Association and its kept politicians enact roadblocks to make it difficult for those laws to be enforced. That is why those charged with enforcing gun laws -- police officers and police chiefs -- support passage of tougher gun laws. As the president said Tuesday night, they "are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned."

If members of the House and Senate oppose a ban on military style assault weapons and ammunition, if they don’t want to require background checks on gun shows to weed out criminals and terrorists, then, as the president said in his speech, they can vote no. But vote they must. Because the more than two dozen Americans present Tuesday night whose families have been bloodied by gun violence deserve it, as does former Representative Giffords. And, to quote President Obama, "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote."