Obama Takes On Extremism on Guns

Struggling for Firearm Sanity

President Obama went big in offering a remarkably comprehensive plan to curb gun violence, and good for him. But his announcement Wednesday is only the beginning of a protracted struggle for national sanity on firearms. Extremists have controlled the debate on guns for many years. They will do all they can to preserve a bloody status quo. The irrationality of their approach must be exposed and their power broken.

Far from acting as if his work was now done, the president made clear that he is fully invested in seeing his agenda realized -- and fully prepared to lead a national movement to loosen the grip of resignation and cynicism in the face of brutality and carnage. Gun violence is not some "boutique" issue, as it is occasionally called. We are in danger of having mass shootings define us as a nation. As a people, we must rise up against this obscenity.

This fight is especially challenging for many who view themselves as "moderates" or "centrists." Moderation is a thoroughly honorable disposition, and Obama's proposals are moderation incarnate. By international standards, they are very cautious. The president did not call for registering all guns or confiscating assault weapons. He strongly endorsed the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. He is operating within a broad consensus about what is possible and what can work.

An assault weapons ban received 38 Republican votes in the House in 1994 and is backed by 58 percent of Americans, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Were those Republicans outside the mainstream? And what about that 58 percent of Americans? The poll also found that 65 percent favored a ban on high-capacity magazines, another part of the Obama plan, and 88 percent favored closing the gun show loophole, part of the effort to make sure there are background checks for all gun purchases.

But the lobbies that purport to speak for gun owners (while actually representing the interests of gun manufacturers) don't care what the public thinks. They tried to pretend the president's ideas are radical. And it shows how perverse our national conversation can become when those who speak in the name of civility, reason and bipartisanship give in to timidity.

Too often, moderation has become a synonym for cowardice. Too often, moderates lack the guts to define the sensible middle of the road themselves -- as Obama has done on the gun issue -- and then defend it. Instead, they yield to the temptation to calibrate where everyone else stands before deciding what they believe. This allows extremists who lack any shame to drag our discourse off the road entirely, into a ditch of unreason, fear and invective.

After the NRA's vile new advertisement that uses Secret Service protection for the president's daughters to make a small-minded political point, can anyone take the organization's arguments seriously again? Aren't politicians who continue to bow low before the NRA complicit with a crowd that lacks any sense of decency?

It tells us all we need to know that the gun lobby is deeply afraid of the facts and the evidence. This is why one of the most important actions the president took was to end the ban on research into gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the weapons lobby had forced through a compliant Congress.

Yet Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also worked hard to find middle ground in their anti-violence program in drawing on concerns raised since the Sandy Hook tragedy by gun rights advocates. Obama thus addressed not only firearms issues but also the imperative to improve school security and our mental health system, as well as the need to know more about the impact of violent video games.

Most heartening of all was the tone the president took. He did not cast himself as an evenhanded umpire far above the fray, handing down ideas that all people of good will would inevitably accept. He acknowledged that the battle ahead would be difficult. He predicted he would have to fight the lie that his plan constituted "a tyrannical assault on liberty." And he sought to mobilize a new effort to counteract the entrenched power of those who have dictated submissiveness in the face of bloodshed.

"Enough," Obama declared, insisting that change would come only "if the American people demand it."

Will we?

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group


About the Author

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).



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The following is a response to E. J. Dionne Jr.’s 18 January piece: “Obama Takes on Extremism on Guns”.  In the essay, Dione does not use reason and persuasion to communicate.  Instead his technique runs counters one of his stated goals a position of moderation and persuasion. 


In the first paragraph he notes support for Obama and labels his opponents as “extremists” seeking to “preserve” murder.  These ideas and the “irrationality of [Obama’s opponent’s] approach” is never “exposed” as Dionne states.  All this has done is begin a barrier to dialog.


Dionne then compares Obama’s position to “international standards”.  This is not a sound, rational point.  First if the intent is to lay an ethical basis, it is a poor one.  His noted “international standard” of gun registration and confiscating also applies to the despotism of the 20th and this century and the murder of over 100 million human lives.  Second, one assumes he seeks to reference the non-despotic international standard.  In this case he should compare Germany to Switzerland in gun rates and deaths.  Finland and Israel have relatively high rates of gun ownership, low rates of gun related crime..  Finally, if he refers to England then crime rates, including murder, should be examined over the entire century from common gun ownership to a disarmed citizenry, at least the law abiding citizenry.  Facts are against his position. 


It is also telling that he does not seek to lay a legal or Constitutional basis.


Next Dionne quotes polling data to establish the popularity of various anti-gun positions.  This is one area where his fact fits purpose.  In the center of this paragraph he notes that Obama is operating in ‘what is possible’.  But, possible is not joined to ethically right.  Something we as Christians should always bear in mind, Christ was crucified by popular polling and Pilot acted within what is politically possible.  That is NOT to say Dionne’s position is anti-Christian but we as Christians, especially Catholic Christians, should turn to a moral basis supported by reasonable argument and not popularity. 


Yet even Dionne’s use of polling data for his position is debased in the next paragraph.  The percentage of those disagreeing with Dionne and Obama are discounted.  The essay does not address the concerns  of this significant group but labels the opposition as lobbies that “purport to speak for gun owners” but actually speak for gun manufacturers. 


Dionne has become what he accuses the opposition: of being radical, perverting our national conversation from civility and reason.  He has called his opponents at dupes for corporate greed effectively guilty of murder through extremism.  The piece is nothing but bloody red meat no better than his claims on the NRA advertisements.


Is the conversation over?  Probably.  The history of democracy is tied to demagoguery.  This issue is certainly a banner in the winds of emotion. 


I respond “No” to the essay’s final question; I will not follow Obama.  And I prefer not to view those who oppose my opinion as statists trying to create a gulag system.  Discourse may leave us in disagreement, even tossing money at opposing lobbyists.  But labeling opponents as bloody fools or Stalinists ends communication.


With that, I offer the following opposing viewpoint and welcome reasoned response.


In regard to gun control, one first has to have a position on should private citizens have guns at all?  I stand with the political philosophy behind the Second Amendment.  The Constitutional Right to bear arms is not for hunting.  The right provides legitimacy to government by placing ultimate authority in “We the people”.  This right is the last resort against a government that permits or devolves to tyranny.  It has been required too many times in American history.  At all levels of governments the protection of rights have immorally and illegally withheld, most often to permit one group of private citizens to attack another.  The Civil Rights Era is filled with examples of lives and neighborhoods being defended only by private citizens.  Just this week MLK day was celebrated.  It should be remembered that Dr. King applied and was denied a conceal carry permit from the local authorities who were supposed to protect him.  During riots and disasters Government has at times proven too burdened or too incompetent to provide defense of personal and property rights.  Government is human and will continue to fail.  All of this is the “why” of the Second Amendment.


Even agreement on the above points does not mean agreement on the right to bear arms.  “Do we really need assault weapons in the hands of the average citizen?”  According to the FBI’s crime statistics, violent crime has decreased dramatically over the past three decades.  This while assault weapons were available, then when banned, and now after the ban was lifted in 2004.  Assault weapons are not the key.  A focus on a ban is ineffective waste of time. 


The common trait to mass killings (regardless of weapon) is mental health.  This is a need that should be addressed in its own right.  It is unethical to ignore the mentally ill for their own sake and society’s.  But again history provides a caveat.  Among the reasons the American system has become ineffective is funding cuts and a history of abuse.  The later reason included abuse by State and Federal Governments.  Policies such as forced sterilizations and lobotomies were often directed at minority and immigrant communities.  Any legislation regarding mental illness leaves the voters with a heavy responsibility. 


In closing, the theme in many anti Second Amendment works is ‘public safety’, in particular children.  This is a poor justification from the anti-gun crowd.  The average citizen is sane and law abiding which applies to the over 50 million households of legal gun owners.  News and Hollywood fail to accurately present the armed “average citizen”.  A parallel to Sandy Hook was a school shooting at Pearl High School.  An average citizen, the assistant principle, retrieved his pistol and ended the mass murder.  The murders at Sandy Hook should create an emotional response.  But the legal response requires reason.  Over 30 people are murdered daily by drunk drivers which is a Sandy Hook 365 days a year.  If “for the children” is the battle cry, then requiring breathalyzer units on all automobile ignitions is a more valid, less pharisaical, cause.  Reaction in law to the Newtown murders must be directed effectively and in proportion to societal risk.

Well said, Karl. You speak for millions.

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