House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Susan Walsh/AP)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

For an hour this afternoon over sandwiches and salads, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held forth in her U.S. Capitol conference room with a bunch of opinion writers on the issues of the day. These sessions are always great because she never holds back. The former speaker of the House mixes hard-nosed political strategy with humor and sometimes the thinly veiled dig.

Pelosi talked about a lot of things: the debt ceiling, House Republican chaos, immigration and entitlements. And I’ll come back to the debt ceiling in a later post. But it was the former House speaker’s comments on gun control that deserve attention right now.

“We don’t talk about ‘gun control.’ We talk about ‘gun violence prevention.’ That contains a lot of things, [including] ending the sale of high-capacity assault magazines,” Pelosi said, discussing the raw political calculus involved in swaying public debate. “We are also instructed to say [not] a ban on assault weapons [but] a ban on the sale of assault weapons because the other side then takes it as a confiscation of weapons….”

This is all very smart. “Gun violence prevention” and the focus on the “sale of” rather than the “ban on” assault weapons focuses the debate where it should have been for decades now. Despite what the right says, the discussion has never been about taking guns away from people. It has been about ensuring that those who own guns get them legally and that the guns they buy don’t unduly threaten public safety. And no one has yet to give me a legitimate reason why I or anyone else outside of the military should be able to buy an assault weapon.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is what’s driving this new push “to get something done” on gun violence prevention.

“Newtown was just, oh,” Pelosi said with a pained exhale. “It challenged our conscience, struck our hearts. Just a horrible, horrible thing. But we all know that many children in America are subjected to that kind of violence, not in that degree.” She illustrated the point by sharing an anecdote from a visit to a daycare center in San Francisco some years back. “I had my real epiphany, when you go to a daycare center and someone pops a balloon and the kids say, “Duck!” you know something is really wrong.”

Pelosi said she understands that “protect and defend” are in the Constitution. But she also said there is a duty to protect and defend the rights within our nation’s founding document. “The rights contained therein include being able to walk safely in your neighborhood or go to school or, you know, to live a life. And so we really do have to address it or we’re just talk,” she said. “I think we have demonstrated that we’re willing to take any political hit to get the job done for the American people. Any one of us, I think, any one of you would have stood in front of that shooter to protect those 20 children. So why can’t we stand in front of those who would oppose taking that [high-capacity ammunition] magazine out of [Adam Lanza’s] hands, that high-capacity gun out of his hands?

We’re going to find out the next few months whether we, from President Obama to fed-up folks all over the country, have the resolve to stand up to the National Rifle Association. I know we’ve been in this position before. But the slaughter of innocents demands we muster the political will to make sensible changes to this nation’s gun laws.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.