The list of legislative proposals and executive actions outlined by President Obama is, as he promised, wide-ranging and ambitious.
Among other things, it includes a proposal to put as many as 1,000 federally funded, armed police officers in schools; boost the identification and treatment of the mentally ill; and fund research through the Centers for Disease Control into possible links between “media images, video games and violence.”
Each of the above steps endorsed by Obama has also been advocated by the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups. However, as the president noted, this is a problem too profound and complicated to be addressed successfully by such policies alone.
The most controversial and ambitious proposal is the banning of assault weapons. The gun lobby points out that under the president’s proposal, other weapons possessing similar firepower would not be banned, raising questions about the motivation and effectiveness of such a ban.
However, assault weapons have a well-documented emotional appeal to those most likely to engage in mass killings such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is clearly their weapon of choice, perhaps because features that the gun lobby dismisses as mere cosmetic in fact give such weapons a military authority and aura that feed into deadly fantasies. We are under no obligation to continue to pander to such fantasies.
Other proposed changes are straightforward reforms that would not be controversial in a more rational environment. Since 2006, for example, the Senate has refused to confirm any nominee — by Republican or Democratic president — as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It has nothing to do with those nominated, and everything to do with the fact that the NRA hates the agency and wants to do anything possible to cripple it. That type of death grip on policy making has to end.
The president also proposes to make background checks mandatory for all gun sales, whether conducted by a licensed firearms dealer or by a private citizen. As an administration official told The Washington Post, “The best analogy that experts talked to us about in our meetings is that it wouldn’t make any sense at the airports to have two lanes — one where if you go to a licensed dealer you go through the metal detector and if you go to a private sale there’s no metal detector at all. This is an attempt to get everybody through the system.”
There’s no rational argument, other than convenience, to be offered against such a proposal, and on deadly matters such as this, convenience is not a valid objection. The proposal will reportedly include “limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes.”
Even after passage of such a law, some people will of course continue to sell weapons on the black market, without background checks. But those people would then be criminals, and if it is later determined that they sold a gun to a known criminal who used it in a crime, they should share responsibility for that crime. There is no Second Amendment argument to be raised on such an issue.
The proposal also includes a ban on the sale of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Interestingly, whenever that approach is mentioned I hear two separate arguments against it:
– Banning magazines larger than 10 rounds would make gun owners less able to defend themselves against multiple attackers, because they would be forced to reload more often.
– Banning magazines larger than 10 rounds would do nothing to slow down those intent on mass murder, because it takes no time at all to exchange clips.
I don’t think it’s necessary to resolve the inherent conflict between those claims, because it is already clear that those who set off on mass murder sprees have already made their choice. As the White House notes, “the shooters at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown all used magazines holding more than 10 rounds.”
If the murderers believe such magazines are useful, then we ought to try to deny them that equipment.
The administration also proposes to get serious about gun trafficking, in which legal gun purchasers buy large numbers of weapons for later private sale to criminals. Amazingly, “there is no explicit law against straw purchasing, so straw purchasers and others who traffic guns can often only be prosecuted for paperwork violations,” the White House report states. The gun industry, and thus the gun lobby, will no doubt oppose that change because it would be bad for sales. Again, that is not an objection worthy of consideration under these circumstances.
In the weeks to come, the objection to such basic, common-sense reforms is likely to consist of heated, repeated cries of “Second Amendment!” and “tyrant!”, “Hitler” and variations thereof. That’s because, when addressed individually and on their merits, there are few rational arguments against such steps. Those who oppose the reforms must therefore attempt to shift the debate to the irrational, a battlefield on which they have the advantage by virture of more experience and firepower.
– Jay Bookman