Sunday, January 6, 2013

White House on guns: This time it’s different


AFTER THE horrors of Newtown, the cynics and traffickers in the downbeat said nothing would change over gun ownership and the lobby of the pro-gun lobby. Everything would be as it was, they said. Not anymore. We’d always hoped this time would be different. This time, it is.

On Saturday, The Washington Post reported on a developing initiative by the White House, what may be — forgive the easy ballistic metaphor — the first comprehensive salvo against the National Rifle Association and that organization’s longstanding lock on the public debate and the legislators on Capitol Hill.

Philip Rucker of The Post reported that the Obama White House “is weighing a far broader and more comprehensive approach to curbing the nation’s gun violence than simply reinstating an expired ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, according to multiple people involved in the administration’s discussions.

“A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors, the sources said.”

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What’s different this time? Besides the usual legislative process of pressing Congress for more gun control — the sausage-making we’re used to — “Biden’s group has expanded its focus to include measures that would not need congressional approval and could be quickly implemented by executive action, according to interest-group leaders who have discussed options with Biden and key Cabinet secretaries,” The Post reports. “Possibilities include changes to federal mental-health programs and modernization of gun-tracking efforts by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”

The Post also said that the White House and the Biden group are planning ways to effectively hit the NRA and pro-gun advocates where they thrive, with overtures to such high-volume gun retailers as Wal-Mart (which sells guns and ammunition at its 4,000 U.S. stores), pitching these sellers on gun control ideas that favor their bottom lines — to, in effect, make gun control saleable, and palatable.

Rucker also reports that the White House has reached out to Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun-control advocate and the mayor of New York City, a metropolis of 8 million people that just reported its lowest murder rate — down by 78 percent — in a generation.

What else is different this time? The public mood: A USA Today/Gallup Poll released in late December found that 58 percent of America want stricter gun-control measures in place, a jump of 14 points in a year.

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THIS MULTILEVELED approach was one hinted at when the working group convened on Dec. 20, days after the murders in Newtown. You could tell by its very composition — Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and officials from law enforcement — that business as usual was about to be endangered.

“Simply coming up with one or two aspects of it really falls short of the magnitude of the gun issue in the country,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, to The Post.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said “[t]hey are very clearly committed to looking at this issue comprehensively.”

And about damn time.

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The multi-pronged approach apparently being considered poses what may be the fiercest pushback against the National Rifle Association; the White House realizes that to beat back a hydra-headed snake — a gun lobby with a deep-pocketed presence in the worlds of government, business and American society — you need more than one club.

“The administration is quietly talking with a diverse array of interest groups, including religious leaders, mental-health professionals and hunters, to build as broad a coalition as possible,” The Post reported. It’s this expansive, all-hands approach to gun control and gun-law reform, mounted with the resources and weight of the White House behind it, that may be the NRA’s supreme test of its alleged muscle on Capitol Hill.

The Biden working group is moving fast on this, no doubt fearing that public outrage over the Newtown slaughter and its recent antecedents will fade over time. They needn’t worry: The administration’s plans were underscored by an incident on Saturday in Aurora, Colo., a hostage situation that left four people dead, including the gunman, after a standoff with Aurora police at a townhouse about four miles from the Aurora Mall, scene of last summer’s movie-theater mass murder.

The circumstances of the shooting weren’t immediately clear; nor were the facts about whether the gun used Saturday was legally purchased. But it almost doesn’t matter; an event like that coming so soon after Newtown, with multiple casualties, is the most recent chapter in the gathering national narrative on guns. It also underscores the challenges facing Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, trying to maintain the status quo in a country that’s calling for action, led by an administration that may have finally brought a big gun to a gunfight.

Image credits: NRA logo: © 2013 National Rifle Association. Gun-law preference poll chart: © 2012 Gallup. Washington Post logo: © 2013 The Washington Post Company. Connecticut Post front page: © 2012 Hearst Communications. 

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