Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Enough Moment


PRESIDENT OBAMA’S response to the events in Newtown, Conn., had so much fire, so much power, so much promise, you could be forgiven if you watched the president at Sunday’s interfaith vigil in the stricken town and thought, “Now, finally, we’re going to advance the issue of gun-law reform in America beyond rhetoric. Now, maybe, something gets done.”

But the days that followed were much like the years that came before. Positions by pro-gun advocates are starting to come together on Capitol Hill, despite the temporary absence of the National Rifle Association from the debate. Gun-control supporters are digging in for the long haul, buoyed by the president’s Sunday speech and his first response to events on Friday.

What’s taking shape in the weeks to come? Dueling dilemmas: The Democrats are in one because of the president’s historical reticence to act boldly on gun-law reform because of the forces in Congress arrayed against him. The Republicans in Congress are in one because they’re arrayed against the president, and prepared to oppose whatever changes Obama is likely to propose on the issue.

Both have explaining to do as the groundswell of public sentiment in Newtown's wake indicates the American people are ready to move the ball of gun-law reform down the field. Even if the leaders of the American people aren’t.

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President Obama justifiably earned high marks for his speech at Sunday’s vigil in Newtown. Because he set the terms of the debate in language both lofty and practical, the president won praise across the board. In a tweet, Obama biographer David Maraniss gave it perhaps the highest encomium: “People will long remember what Barack Obama said in Newtown ... his Gettysburg address ...”

Excerpts bear out the notion that the president sought to reach for the stars, our faults and ourselves in a clearly moving oration.

“Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims who, much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

“But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”

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BUT REWIND to May 1 of this year. A story in The Wall Street Journal reports on an Obama administration policy that, despite its international focus, reveals a president of a different mindset on gun control.

“U.S. homeland-security and law-enforcement agencies have objected to Obama administration proposals to relax export restrictions on high-powered firearms, threatening a centerpiece of the president's trade and national-security agenda.

“The agencies, in internal memos viewed by The Wall Street Journal, warn the changes could help arm drug cartels and terrorists and make it harder for the U.S. to crack down on gun-trafficking.

“The arms proposal is part of a broader overhaul of U.S. export rules sought by Mr. Obama, with the goal of helping domestic manufacturers compete in global markets, as well as improving U.S. national security by focusing controls on higher-risk items and enhancing the capabilities of allies.”

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More domestically problematic and less partisan is the judgment of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the gun control nonprofit that issued a lacerating first-year report on Obama’s efforts to contain firearm violence. “From the repeal of Reagan Era rules keeping loaded guns out of national parks to the repeal of post-9/11 policies to safeguard Amtrak from armed terrorist attacks, President Obama’s stance on guns has endangered our communities and threatened our national security. ...

“President Obama’s first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure.”

But beyond these maters of commission are other concerns related to omission, things the president could have done but chose not to. President Obama has failed to use his office as the bully pulpit for common-sense gun laws. Even making allowances for what he can’t control — like the legislatures and governors of 10 states, from Arizona to Mississippi, that voted to allow guns on college campuses, and in bars and houses of worship — the president has never fully engaged on the gun-rights debate.

That failure to connect with the American people on this in a visceral, populist way (as he did with health care) comes back now to haunt him, as many people see President Obama being as big an obstacle to the cause of firearms reform as the lobby that opposes such changes.

For his detractors on this matter, the cause of strengthening gun laws is as much about Obama reform as it is about anything else.

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NOT THAT he doesn’t have company. The anti-gun-reform community, helmed by the National Rifle Association, has fought hard for years to maintain the status quo in terms of gun ownership, donating millions to candidates in House and Senate races ($17.6 million in federal races in 2012) and exacting its own pledges of loyalty to pro-gun causes.

The NRA has reinforced its political muscle with a populism enrobed in the permissions of the Second Amendment, and done so in a way that speaks to older, whiter, rural America. Remember Charlton Heston, the NRA’s former maximum leader, smoldering about how the only way they’d take his guns would be “from my cold, dead hands”?

The NRA rode roughshod over meaningful, thoughtful legislation that could have advanced the causes of responsible gun ownership and irresponsible gun removal. Instead, the organization now led by the dapper, bellicose thug Wayne LaPierre, has long since doubled down on demands for absolute fealty to the group’s essential mission: Guns For Everybody. No Limits. The Right to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed. The recoilless rifle in the garage is A-OK.

The NRA’s hijacking of the Second Amendment has likely just ended. Unlike the NRA’s rapid response after previous shootings — no response at all, basically, just laying low and waiting for things to blow over — the organization has in the wake of Newtown hinted at something previously unthinkable: This time, the NRA knows it’s different.

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No sooner had the Newtown murders occurred than the NRA’s Facebook page disappeared; same thing with the org’s Twitter feed. The Connecticut Mirror reported Saturday that the NRA’s headquarters shut down the switchboard on Friday, too. Radio silence? This was radio nonexistence.

On Tuesday, it was widely reported that the Freedom Group Companies, the conglomerate whose Bushmaster line produced the AR-15 semi-automatic assault weapon used in the Newtown massacre, would be sold by Freedom Group’s owner, Cerberus Capital Management. This was just hours after the California Teachers Pension Fund announced plans to review its $600 million investment in two Cerberus funds tied to Freedom Group. In a statement, the private-equity concern said the Sandy Hook Elementary incident was “a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level.”

“This decision allows us to meet our obligations to the investors whose interests we are entrusted to protect without being drawn into the national debate” on guns, Cerberus said in a statement.

And the Dick’s Sporting Goods chain — more than 500 retail locations in 42 states — posted this notice on its Web site: “Out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning we have removed all guns from sale and from display in our store nearest to Newtown and suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide.”

They know it’s different this time, too.

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ORDINARY PEOPLE in the NRA decided it was time for change months ago. In the wake of the deadly Aurora theater shootings, a late July poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found “very strong support” for gun ownership background checks. 74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun; 74 percent of NRA members believe permits should only be granted to applicants who have completed gun safety training.

The NRA and its proxies are in a difficult position; Nancy Lanza, the mother of Adam Lanza, the killer in Newtown, was by all accounts an avid gun enthusiast. The Bushmaster used to kill so many on Friday? She bought it, and other firearms besides that one, and even took her son to shooting ranges for target practice.

It’s not know yet if Nancy Lanza was a member of the NRA, but whether or not she was by formal membership, she was certainly a member by way of like conviction. Either way, the murders in Newtown complicate public relations for the NRA.

The pre-eminent lobbying organization for gun rights in America will have to contend with broad and nasty social fallout now that one of their own (in spirit if not in fact) was responsible for making available to a deeply troubled young man precisely the kind of lethal firepower the NRA believes should be in the hands of ordinary Americans.

It’s no wonder the NRA has offered little more than boilerplate condolence since Friday. They won’t be heard from formally until a news conference is held this Friday.

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Clearly, there’s enough Rubicon here for everyone to cross.

This is the national matter that won’t abide the president’s painfully deliberate decision-making process, and his studious way of avoiding the gun reform issue altogether. The president and his White House will have to change.

The National Rifle Association will have to change. The severely conservative lobby org whose strident bullying has over the years made itself a force to be reckoned with just encountered the more irresistible force of society’s call for a new narrative on firearms.

Waiting for the PR storm to pass won’t work anymore. The NRA faces the need for a new threshold for action. If the slaughter of 27 innocents, 20 of them under the age of 8, isn’t enough, if this level of carnage isn’t enough to shake off the NRA’s smug complacency … what the hell is?

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PROGRESSIVES AND gun-law reform advocates will have to change. They’ll need to acknowledge and respect the dimensions of our national culture that are intertwined with the use of guns for hunting and recreational purposes; and they need to resist their own pro forma demonization of guns, an attitude that only hardens the resolve of gun owners to stay gun owners — or to just own more guns.


And there’s more. Just ask the president. “This is our first task: Caring for our children. It’s our first job,” he said on Sunday. “If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.

“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? ...

“We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

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There it is. Everyone’s got skin in the game. Everything’s on the table, from the bulletfests we can’t get enough of at the movies to the ballistic strain of our political discourse (thank you Sarah Palin for “Don’t retreat, reload!”).

The people in Congress can soon stop fearing the wrath of the NRA. The ground has shifted; the balance of power is moving. Next year Congress will need to start fearing the wrath of the voters, who have surely moved on gun reform since last Friday.

For them, for all of us, there’s no more guesswork about the last straw, Gladwell’s tipping point, the line in the sand.

It’s here. This is that moment. Enough.

Image credits: Newtown shootings' aftermath: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images. Obama: pool image. Wall Street Journal logo: © 2012 The Wall Street Journal. Obama report card: Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. NRA logo: © 2012 National Rifle Association. Heston: Ric Feld/AP/PA Photos. Dick's logo: © 2012 Dick's Sporting Goods. Woman on phone: Jessica Hill/Associated Press. Nancy Lanza: Various sources, all originating with the Lanza family. Flags: AP/Julio Cortez. Excerpt from New York Times ad: Demand a Plan. 

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