"My administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners," the president boasted, "it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges."
No, that wasn't George W. Bush. It was President Barack Obama in an op-ed piece published Sunday in the Arizona Daily Star that practically begged the gun lobby to support modest reforms of our lax gun laws.
He wasn't even asking for a ban on those large gun magazines, which would almost certainly have saved lives on that January day in Tucson when six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among thirteen wounded by gunfire.
What Obama endorsed were, well, baby steps toward strengthening background checks to keep guns out of the hands of "dangerous criminals and fugitives" and those who are "unbalanced." That's a fine idea, though his specific proposals—"enforcing laws that are already on the books," "reward the states that provide the best data," "make the system faster and nimbler"—were hardly the stuff of political courage.
But if Obama lacked audacity, he was full of hope for a dialogue. "I'm willing to bet," he wrote, "that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few...from getting their hands on a gun in the first place."
And the president's tender approach was promptly met with a slap in the face from the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre: "Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?"
Undeterred, the White House wants to keep casting the president as the voice of sweet reason in the midst of terrible people who, as Obama put it in his op-ed, "shout at one another."
Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, explained the approach in an e-mail. "There are real problems that need to be solved, so we could just retreat to traditional positions and rehash the old arguments until we are blue in the face, but we have done that for the last couple of decades," he said. "Or we could try something different—drain some of the politics from this and look for areas where we can actually get something done."
A lovely idea, and if it gets us more rational gun laws, I'll be the first to admit it. But the administration's growing affection for false equivalences that put positions Obama purportedly agrees with on the same level as positions he opposes is becoming insidious.
Here is the president in his op-ed:
The fact is, almost all gun owners in America are highly responsible.... They buy their guns legally and use them safely, whether for hunting or target shooting, collection or protection. And that's something that gun-safety advocates need to accept. Likewise, advocates for gun owners should accept the awful reality that gun violence affects Americans everywhere, whether on the streets of Chicago or at a supermarket in Tucson.
Excuse me, but gun-safety advocates don't "need" to accept that most gun owners are responsible. We always have, as the president sort of acknowledges later in his piece. How can repeating NRA propaganda against advocates of sane gun laws be helpful to this debate? It was a bolder Obama who said in 2001: "I know that the NRA believes people should be unimpeded and unregulated on gun ownership. I disagree." Crisp, clear, and right.
"Assault weapons are not for hunting," Obama said in 2004. "They are the weapons of choice for gang-bangers, drug dealers and terrorists." Right again.
Yet in his op-ed, the president wrote: "Some will say that anything short of the most sweeping antigun legislation is a capitulation to the gun lobby. Others will predictably cast any discussion as the opening salvo in a wild-eyed scheme to take away everybody's guns."
The first statement is a wild distortion of the position of actual advocates of sane gun laws. They are not seeking "sweeping antigun legislation." They are pushing tame steps LaPierre and his lobbyists reject—thorough background checks and a ban on those big magazines. Yes, restoring the highly effective ban on assault weapons would also be good. But that's Obama's own position. Isn't it?
Obama observed last week that "bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people." It can also have destructive consequences for politicians. The president could set a good example by standing up to the bullies of the NRA.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).