Barack Obama crosses the gun Rubicon

By J Brooks Spector 17 January 2013

At high noon on Wednesday, Barack Obama went on television to announce a roster of executive orders intended to prevent some of the worst excesses of unrestricted gun ownership. He also called on Congress to step up to the plate and toughen the nation’s gun laws. The National Rifle Association was ready too – with one of the sickest TV commercials ever produced. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

These proposals follow the recommendations of a vice presidential task force convened after the recent shootings of 20 elementary students and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut to look into what could be done under current law and to make further recommendations for congressional action. This task force and Wednesday’s announcements respond to a rising tide of national revulsion over mass killings like the one in Newtown.

When Obama spoke to the Newtown community, and to the nation, a few days after the killings, he had said: “What choice do we have? Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” These comments seemed a definitive sign his administration would finally make a run for some form of gun control legislation, especially since he added, “Surely we can do better than this. We have an obligation to try.” (Daily Maverick coverage of the initial events was contained in All guns blazing: The stark reality beyond US firearm laws.)

In a half-minute video planned as a pre-emptive response to Obama’s announcements, the National Rifle Association (NRA) – the leading lobby group opposing any form of gun ownership restrictions – called Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for allowing (armed) Secret Service officers to protect his two daughters. (The NRA has been widely criticised for proposing a programme to put armed guards in every school in the country, following the killings in Newtown.)

Watch: NRA’s ad

For many years, Americans have endured repeat outrages of multiple killings – usually by very troubled individuals armed with high-powered weapons and large capacity ammunition clips. According to international comparative data, Americans have about 270 million firearms in their collective personal possession, and a significant number of those are assault weapons capable of quickly firing multiple rounds. While many gun owners defend their position on weapons by pointing to their long-time participation in hunting and target shooting, others argue that gun ownership is an essential element in the protection of family and property.

However, while much of the vociferous opposition to regulations, registration or limits on gun ownership derives from those rationales, a further basis is the continuing resilience of “the myth of the frontier”, the saga of those sturdy, armed citizens defending a hard-won civilisation from the outrages of Native Americans, wild animals and criminal gangs, as well as a fear on the part of some that gun ownership is the final redoubt against a potentially tyrannical government. This, in turn, draws on a particular reading of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, enthusiastically promoted by the NRA, whose words, in full, read: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Although the NRA was, for many years, an association interested in marksmanship training and a regulated hunting culture, since the 1970s, as part of the hardening of right-wing opposition to liberal-left attitudes, the NRA increasingly has taken on a rigid opposition to any form of gun ownership and sales regulation on the basis of that amendment’s wording – despite the realities of mounting carnage. Many scholars (and grammarians) argue, however, that this constitutional amendment was primarily designed to prevent federal government usurpation of the rights of citizens to participate in state militias – based on the experiences of those militias in the country’s Revolutionary War as a revolt against the British crown – rather than its call to encourage untrammelled weapons ownership by anybody who wants one, or two or three. Or 58.

Watch: Pierce Morgan “debate” conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (warning: not for the faint-hearted)

However, with Obama’s dramatic announcements of his executive orders and his call to Congress to act on weapons regulation, the Obama administration has drawn one of those metaphorical lines in the sand. In doing this now he is drawing sustenance from popular anger over the most recent killings (the newest polls say a majority of the American population supports more regulation). He is also moving now because of a feeling his mandate from the November 2012 presidential election may make this the best possible moment to press forward on an issue he was notably more reluctant to embrace too closely in his first term.

The problem, of course, is that all such laws will require passage in both houses of Congress. However, Republicans continue to control the lower house and even many Democrats are leery of gun control measures as well – partly by virtue of the issue’s “hot button” status with many in the electorate and the significant campaign contributions by the NRA and its allies to many congressional candidates over the years.

In Obama’s executive orders announced on Wednesday, he promised to act to tighten enforcement of existing gun laws and to improve the flow of information among federal agencies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have them (such as those with a history of mental issues). He also announced plans to ask Congress to consider new legislation that would include an actual ban on assault weapons, would impose real limits on high-capacity magazines, provide for expanded background checks for gun purchases and set up new gun trafficking laws to help restrict the spread of weapons across the country.  

The New York Times reported just after the speech “officials said the president will call for a new and tougher ban on military style assault weapons and to limit the number of rounds that can be in a magazine to 10. That would eliminate the 30-round magazines that were used in Newtown as well as other mass shootings at Virginia Tech, a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, and a congresswoman’s public event in Tucson, Arizona.” Moreover, “The proposals also would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing the longstanding loophole that allows gun buyers to avoid such checks by purchasing their weapons at gun shows or from a private seller. The background database, in place since 1996, has stopped 1.5 million sales to felons, fugitives, convicted domestic abusers and others, but today nearly 40% of all gun sales are exempt from the system.”

In making his announcements, Obama added, “In the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality. If there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.” The president began his comments by drawing on some of the letters he received from children after the Newtown slaughter – and some of these children were in the audience for his announcement. Obama said, “This is our first task as a society. Keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change.”

Despite the rising tide of public support for further gun control measures, the Obama administration has already admitted it is going to be a very hard road to success. Bruce Reed, Joe Biden’s chief of staff, told a group of liberal activists the evening prior to the president’s announcement that getting Congress to actually pass these proposals will be even harder than it was to get Congress to pass the 1994 ban on assault weapons – a ban that has now expired.

But, despite such difficulties, Reed added both the president and vice president would be taking their message across the nation. Naturally, the NRA is striking back – first was that video accusing Obama of being an “elitist hypocrite”. In response, the White House fired right back with, “Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight. But to go so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.” Generally, picking on a presidential wife, children or pet is usually a very clear sign that the gloves have truly come off.

While the more limited executive orders carry the effective force of law, getting Congress to pass the more extensive measures will require the president expend real political capital and go into high gear to work with gun control supporters to generate the kind of concentrated pressure on Congress so that it finally produces legislation. This fight will measure just how strong the NRA’s hold on the national psyche , or at least that part of it that relates to the mystique of guns,– really and truly is after the last mass slaughter. This battle may well be the domestic policy fight – even more than squabbles over the budget and debt limit – that helps define the character of the Obama administration’s second term of office. DM

Read more: 

  • Obama Unveils Proposals for Toughening Laws on Guns, New York Times
  • Obama announces gun-control measures (video of the Obama announcements) from the Washington Post
  • Obama to unveil gun violence measures Wednesday at the AP
  • Poll: Most Americans support new gun-control measures after Newtown massacre in the Washington Post
  • Most see Obama as ‘strong leader,’ say deal on debt ceiling does not require cuts in the Washington Post
  • And Then the NRA Accused President Obama of Being A Hypocrite Because His Daughters Get Armed Guards at Slate
  • Gun laws in the US, state by state – and interactive guide at the Guardian

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by 8-year old letter writer Hinna Zeejah (L), 10-year old letter writer Taejah Goode (3rd L), 11-year old letter writer Julia Stokes and 8-year old letter writer Grant Fritz (R, signs executive orders on gun violence during an event at the White House in Washington, January 16, 2013. Behind the children, are Julia’s Dad Dr. Theophil Stokes (2nd R) and Kimberly Graves (4thL), Taejah’s mom. Vice President Joe Biden delivered his recommendations to Obama after holding a series of meetings with representatives from the weapons and entertainment industries as requested by the president after the December 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed. REUTERS/Jason Reed



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