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Is this the Moment for Political Action on Gun Violence?

President Bill Clinton Address Gun Laws in his 2000 State of the Union Address in the wake of the Columbine, Colorado Tragedy.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, the nation could be poised for a more serious dialogue about gun violence. Even President Obama, who was reticent in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shootings amidst the height of electioneering to risk losing swing voters, now seems more willing to engage in a national dialogue on preventing gun violence. On Sunday, President Obama traveled to Newton, Connecticut to address the community at an interfaith vigil. As he noted in his speech, it was the fourth time in his presidency that the nation has come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings. Indeed, according to a Mother Jones investigation, spree shootings like those in Newton, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Columbine have been on the rise in the United States (a less restrictive definition of mass shootings employed by James Allan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern, finds that there hasn’t been an increase). There have been at least 62 mass shootings in the past three decades, with 24 in the last seven years alone. In addition to these shootings, there have also been “an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children.” President Obama told the community:

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’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s 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.

While the President refrained from advocating specific gun control laws, he noted:

In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.

In pressing for action, President Obama follows in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessors, though he has been more restrained thus far by refraining from advocating specific measures. 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.

During the 1992 election, then-candidate Bill Clinton’s endorsed the Brady Handgun Violence and Prevention Act and the movement supporting it. 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.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will take up the Democratic Party’s traditionally strong stance for gun control. However, the tragedy in Newton may be a tipping point as the media spotlights the tragedy and possible responses. The Pew Research Center and Gallup recently found that the country is evenly divided on gun control. But in the wake of Newton, the nation could be more poised than in recent memory to engage in a dialogue on the issue. A new CBS News poll finds that support for gun control is at its highest point in a decade. According to the poll, conducted December 14 – 16, fifty-seven percent of Americans now say gun control laws should be made more strict.

A few politicians also appear more willing to speak out in favor of action. On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Ind.) insisted that curbing gun violence should be President Obama’s “number one agenda” item:

He’s president of the United States, and if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) vowed to introduce legislation to ban assault weapons at the start of the next Congress and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he was optimistic about the prospect of passing a gun control measure. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a conservative Democrat and National Rifle Association member, said on Monday it's time to discuss new regulations on assault weapons. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, also says he has and a new perspective on gun control in the wake of Newton. Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who also has an “A” rating from the NRA, said that “possible changes to our gun laws” would be part of the conversation after the elementary school shootings. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a gun-rights ally, said for the first time that he believes Congress should examine whether to pursue a legislative response to mass shootings. And former advisor to Mitt Romney and Christian conservative public relations executive, Mark DeMoss, called on Sunday for a national conversation on gun control. Following the shifts in the positions of key Senators, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted on Tuesday that President Obama is “actively supportive” of planned legislation to reinstate the national ban on assault weapons. Carney also said the President supports closing a loophole that limits scrutiny of weapons sales at gun shows and restricting high-capacity ammunition clips.

What might meaningful action look like and where might the conversation start? It’s clear that the conversation must include a discussion of mental health - Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson), James Eagen Holmes (Aurora), and Adam Lanza all had significant mental health problems. Advocacy groups and think tanks have put forth a number of proposals they think could reduce gun violence in the United States, including more extensive background checks, banning assault weapons, increasing waiting periods and increasing public health funding. But consensus for action to address violence remains elusive. Gun rights advocates fear their Second Amendment rights may be taken away. In the wake of Newton, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) went so far as to suggest that greater access to guns could help prevent mass killings. Jeffrey Goldberg also argues that when Americans already own nearly 300 million firearms, gun control efforts, while noble, won’t reduce gun crime and mass shootings. He suggests instead that maybe we should allow more people to carry guns. Charles Cooke provides a different conservative response:

To realize that there is very little than one could have done to stop yesterday’s abomination is to understand that we are sometimes powerless in the face of evil, however much we shout about it.

Newton may be a tipping point for a broader national dialogue. It seems that President Obama is being given some license to use the bully pulpit to address gun violence. It remains to be seen how he will use the power of the presidency in response to work with Congress on this issue and garner public support for joint initiatives.

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