In the wake of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, there is a window of opportunity to discuss gun laws because people are paying attention. The real question is whether the presidential candidates will have enough courage to seize the moment and begin a national dialogue on gun laws. After all, Aurora is not singular incident. Indeed, just three days before, a man carrying an assault weapon fired into a crowded bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, leaving 17 injured, and indeed other recent examples abound. Instead of engaging in a real, albeit difficult, debate over the issues, both presidential candidates have focused on comforting victims and have hidden behind the argument of supporting of the Second Amendment. President Obama appears unwilling to risk swing voters, while Mitt Romney appears unwilling to go against the party line.
Although President Obama pledged to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, he hasn’t pursued it. Moreover, he’s not going to act on any new gun control initiatives in a close election year when he might lose voters who support gun rights. Instead, as Press Secretary Jay Carney put it on Sunday, “He believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons.” President Obama might be able to afford to take for granted those in his party who support gun control, they’re unlikely to defect to the Republican Party, after all. On the other hand, not acting adds to the list of items the president has not delivered to his constituency and that could depress supporter turnout.
President Obama is also breaking precedent with previous Democratic presidents who have, in the wake of national tragedies, seized the moment to press Congress and work with social movements to pass gun control laws, even in election years. In the wake of urban riots beginning in 1964 and the 1968 assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson pressed Congress to enact the Gun Control Act. In his address to the nation on civil disorder, Johnson not only attempted to comfort the nation, he also said his administration would continue to press for laws like the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act and the Gun Control Act. Even though the bills didn’t contain all the provisions Johnson sought, both laws passed enacting some of the most significant restrictions on firearms since the 1934 National Firearms Act.
Recall, also, then-candidate Bill Clinton’s endorsement of the Brady Handgun Violence and Prevention Act and the movement supporting it in the 1992 election. Soon after assuming office, Congress passed the law and President Clinton signed it. In the wake of Columbine, President Clinton further pressed for laws on gun control. He addressed the issue in his 2000 State of the Union Address:
Soon after the Columbine tragedy, Congress considered commonsense gun legislation, to require Brady background checks at the gun shows, child safety locks for new handguns, and a ban on the importation of large capacity ammunition clips. With courage and a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President—[laughter] —the Senate faced down the gun lobby, stood up for the American people, and passed this legislation. But the House failed to follow suit….
We must strengthen our gun laws and enforce those already on the books better. Federal gun crime prosecutions are up 16 percent since I took office. But we must do more. I propose to hire more federal and local gun prosecutors and more ATF agents to crack down on illegal gun traffickers and bad-apple dealers. And we must give them the enforcement tools that they need, tools to trace every gun and every bullet used in every gun crime in the United States.
On the other side of the aisle, Mitt Romney gave his position yesterday, reiterating that there isn’t a need to renew the federal ban on assault rifles. Never mind the fact that as governor of Massachusetts he signed a ban on assault weapons and quadrupled the fee for gun licenses. Romney told CNBC’s The Kudlow Report:
“I still believe that the 2nd Amendment is the right course to preserve and defend and don’t believe that new laws are going to make a difference in this type of tragedy.
There are — were, of course — very stringent laws which existed in Aurora, Colorado. Our challenge is not the laws, our challenge is people who obviously are distracted from reality and do unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things.”
As a presidential candidate, Romney is of course towing the party line. Take for example a debate between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. Despite having twice been the intended victim of handgun violence, President Ford laid out his opposition to gun control in the debate:
The record of gun control, whether it's in one city or another or in some States does not show that the registration of a gun, handgun, or the registration of the gun owner has in any way whatsoever decreased the crime rate or the use of that gun in the committing of a crime. The record just doesn't prove that such legislation or action by a local city council is effective.
Instead, Ford supported tough legislation for individuals who use hand guns in crimes, “so that once apprehended, indicted, convicted, they will be in jail and off the streets and not using guns in the commission of a crime.”
Ford further stated:
The person who wants to use a gun for an illegal purpose can get it whether it's registered or outlawed-they will be obtained--and they are the people who ought to go behind bars. You should not, in the process, penalize the legitimate handgun owner. And when you go through the process of registration, you, in effect, are penalizing that individual who uses his gun for a very legitimate purpose.
But, just as Romney is doing this election, so also Ford espoused the party line in the election year. Ford’s administration had in fact proposed a prohibition against the sale of the so-called “Saturday night specials.”
In the wake of the Aurora tragedy, it’s a shame that election year politics are once again trumping the hard issues of governance. Regardless of their position on gun laws, isn’t it time the candidates put aside partisan politics and engage in an open and honest debate about the issues?