The mass murder of 27 first-graders and adults in Newtown Connecticut could be a turning point in public sentiment and presidential leadership. Or it would be a moment for kind gestures and little durable change.
President Obama was eloquent last night and seemed to be setting the stage for a presidential commitment on behalf of more than gestures. "I'll use whatever power this office holds," he said, sounding like Lyndon Johnson to prevent "more tragedies like this one."
The shootings came at a moment when Obama, newly re-elected for a second term, was coming to appreciate how to use his presidency to rally public opinion and put his opponents on the defensive. He was discovering that some steel in the presidential spine, far from riling up Republicans, compels them to make concessions.
The politics of gun control are particularly hard, because the issue divides not just ideologically but culturally and geographically. There are literally dozens of states where to embrace even modest limits on guns is to commit political suicide. No pun intended.
In recent years, even most liberals have simply avoided the issue. After the mass killings at Virginia Tech, no prominent political leader used the mayhem to renew the call for effective gun control. Even after the mass murders of high school students at Columbine, Colorado, politicians were too intimidated to put gun control back on the agenda.
If anything, the issue was going the other way. Florida has just celebrated its millionth permit authorizing the concealed carrying of weapons. More and more states and localities are allowing people to carry guns into locations where they were previously prohibited. The bungled ATF effort to track cross border smuggling of guns, Operation Fast and Furious, put gun control newly on the defensive and further emboldened the right.
The Obama Justice Department, in an election year, shelved the most modest of initiatives to improve enforcement of existing laws. The noble Brady Campaign against gun violence is at its weakest since its inception. The Center For Disease Control's small office that treated gun violence as a public health problem was shut down more than a decade ago. There is no effective gun control lobby, and with the exception of rare figures like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, most liberal politicians are AWOL.
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