As a member of the White House Press Corps, I’ve attended a lot of events at the White House – but none more moving or powerful than this week’s announcement by President Obama and Vice President Biden of their plans to deal with gun violence.
In the front row were parents of first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Behind them sat Colin Goddard, one of the survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre. On stage were four kids who had written letters to the president after Sandy Hook, begging him to do something about guns. The force of their innocent words brought veteran reporters to tears: “I feel terrible for the parents who lost their children,” wrote third-grader Hinna. “I love my country, and I want everybody to be happy and safe.”
In his own remarks, the president spoke slowly and solemnly about the need for this country to seize the moment and take action, especially after the tragic murder of innocents in Newtown, Conn. “This is our first task as a society,” he said, “keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged.”
But, the president pointed out, it wasn’t just the shock of mass murder scenes like Newtown and Aurora, Colo., that should prompt us to act. It’s the daily toll of senseless gun deaths in cities across the country. “In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary,” he reported, “more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun – 900 in the past month.”
Then the president got to work. On the spot, he signed orders for 23 executive actions to help reduce gun violence, including more research on gun violence, helping schools hire more school resource officers, allowing doctors to report to law enforcement officials threats of violence by mentally ill patients, tightening the list of individuals prohibited from having a gun and tougher prosecution of gun crimes.
At the same time, Obama challenged Congress to do its part by passing legislation to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, outlaw civilian possession of armor-piercing bullets and require criminal background checks for all gun sales, including those at gun shows or by private individuals.
Immediately, there were those predictable voices who accused the president of going too far. His efforts were branded as dictatorial and confiscatory. In fact, they are anything but. Obama did, indeed, put forth the most comprehensive package of gun-control measures in decades. But what’s striking is how non-earth-shaking they really are. They’re just common sense.
Consider the top three: requiring a criminal background check for every gun purchase; keeping weapons of war off the streets; limiting magazines to 10 rounds (but not the number of 10-round magazines). Why should they be controversial at all? If we’re serious about keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, how can any reasonable person oppose a background check at every point of sale? And nobody except gun manufacturers – or their paid henchmen, the NRA – could argue that our Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment to protect the right of some madman, using a mass murder weapon, to gun down 20 first-graders in 10 minutes in the year 2012.
Indeed, what’s most disturbing about President Obama’s plan is not that he went too far. It’s that America’s apparent fascination with guns prevents him from going far enough. For starters, why not treat guns like cars? Cars are not exactly lethal weapons, yet we still require everyone to register them, insure them and get a license to operate them. Shouldn’t we do the same for guns?
And if we’re really serious about assault weapons, why not learn from Australia? After a gunman shot and killed 35 people in 1996, Australia not only banned the possession and use of new assault rifles, it sponsored a federal buy-back program under which, according to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, almost 700,000 guns (the equivalent of 40 million guns in the U.S.) were purchased and destroyed. Australia has not experienced one single gun massacre since.
So let the gun nuts rant and rave about government overkill. They’ve got it backward. After all the mass killings with guns we’ve experienced in recent years, the real question is not why are we doing so much – but why do we even have to debate about doing so little?