The White House press corps didn’t seem to think President Obama’s press conference on guns today was that newsworthy — reporters were more interested in asking him about the imminent fiscal cliff deadline. But I believe Obama’s pledge today to pursue sustained action to combat gun violence was a very important moment, and demonstrates what presidential leadership on this issue is supposed to look like.
No question, meaningful gun law reform still faces major obstacles. And all of our leaders — Obama included — have badly failed to lead on this in the past. But neither of those things diminishes the significance of his statements today. Here’s why they mattered:
1) Obama didn’t take refuge in generalities; he staked out very specific policy goals that need to be achieved. He voiced support for banning the sale of military style assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips, and for requiring background checks before “all” gun purchases. He called these “proposals that I intend to push without delay,” adding: “this is not some Washington commission.” He tasked his Vice President to draw up ways to accomplish these goals, and also called for a Congressional vote on them in January. That means Obama understands the need not to let public sentiment dissipate on the issue, and for a specific time frame for legislative action.
2) Obama moved quickly to claim the sensible middle ground in this debate. He stressed that polls show majority support for the specific gun reforms outlined above. He made it clear that they are not incompatible with either the Second Amendment or America’s “tradition of gun ownership,” and noted that he believed that even most gun owners would agree with sensible steps designed to keep dangerous people from getting a “weapon of war.”
This puts the gun rights brigade on notice: It’s a threat to use the bully pulpit to drive home that gun rights groups don’t speak for the majority of Americans, and to undercut their efforts to caricature gun law reform as liberal, gun-seizing tyranny run amok. His vow to use “all the powers of this office” to advance solutions to gun violence is also a reminder to lawmakers inclined to oppose action — as some Republicans are already signalling they will — that he will use the presidency to rally public opinion on the topic.
3) Obama identified the problem as an epidemic that claims lives on a daily basis, rather than just a sporadic series of horrific, headline-grabbing atrocities. He referenced the regular deaths of police officers and ordinary citizens in routine settings at the hands of “every day gun violence,” which he said we must no longer “accept as routine.” Also important: he signaled that the problem goes beyond just the availability of guns and will also require a focus on beefing up mental health services. Discussing this as a broad, complex problem is important in undercutting one of the main tactics of evasion and obfuscation employed by the gun rights camp — the constant claim that this or that specific reform would not have prevented this or that specific massacre.
“What we saw was leadership,” Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, told me today. “This is going to be about taking action.”
No question, it’s easy to remain skeptical about the prospects for real reform and about whether lawmakers, Obama included, will remain engaged once the Newtown headlines fade. But Obama did demonstrate today what presidential engagement on this issue looks like. And in so doing, he invited us to insist that he sustain it for the foreseeable future.