January 16, 2013

Obama just wrapped up his speech announcing what many are characterizing, rightly, as the most sweeping set of gun law reform proposals in generations. As expected, he proposed a comprehensive set of improvements to the background check system, a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and ending a freeze on research into gun violence. The 23 executive actions he proposed fall somewhat short of the “tyranny” the right pretends to fear.

A few quick notes:

1) Obama led with the push for universal background check. It’s key that this was the first proposal he mentioned, because it’s a reminder that — despite all the focus on the political viability of the assault weapons ban — instituting a universal background check is actually a higher priority for many gun control advocates. What’s more, the emphasis on improving the background check system is good politics. It doesn’t go directly to the question of limiting law abiding people’s access to certain types of weapons.

When the “gun rights” crowd screams “tyranny,” most Americans will find the idea that government is violating the rights of the law abiding by beefing up efforts to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting killing machines just doesn’t pass the common sense test. Judging by early returns, this could also be something that some Republicans can support — it allows Obama to claim the sensible center.

2) Despite what you hear, something may actually pass Congress this time. Commentators ceaselessly claim the assault weapons ban can’t pass Congress. And, yes, it very well might not. But that simply doesn’t mean that the other proposals won’t. If Obama can achieve only some of the proposals, such as universal background checks, a ban on high capacity magazines, and more research into the causes of gun violence, not to mention all the other improvements he’s pursuing via executive order, that will be a real achievement. Again, none of these go directly to the question of whether to limit access to certain types of guns. In particular, the case for the high capacity mag ban only touches on the volume and speed of firepower, and is an easy common sense argument to make.

“It’s hard to marshal a political argument on behalf of civilians having the ability to shoot hundreds of rounds in a few seconds,” Robert Spitzer, the author of the Politics of Gun Control, tells me.

As for the House GOP not allowing a vote on these proposals, history suggests otherwise: In the wake of the Columbine massacre in the late 1990s, Republicans controlled the House and did allow some gun control measures to go to a vote. They failed, but that doesn’t mean all efforts will fail this time. The point is that precedent shows that horrific, high profile massacres can break the will of Republicans to bottle up legislative responses.

What’s more, the push for an assault weapons ban — which is a tougher sell politically, because the difficulty of defining assault weapons requires a technical argument — could actually help other measures pass. You could easily see just enough Republicans opposing it in order to give themselves cover to support some of the other proposals. “The assault weapons ban may prove to be an important bargaining chip in this process, in exchange for support for other measures,” Spitzer says.

* Obama signaled a major political push lies ahead. Conservatives screamed about Obama’s use of children at today’s event, and it’s not hard to understand why: It shows that Obama is going to mount a major public relations push to sell his proposals — one that, crucially, frames the battle as one over whether we are capable as a society of acting to protect our children from violent death. “The emphasis on much of the rhetoric has been on humanizing the issue and keeping the focus on protecting children,” Spitzer says. Expect that to continue.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.