Getting control of guns

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

THERE'S A WEARYING pattern associated with gun-related tragedies in this country. An assault, like the shooting Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and 19 others, sparks discussion about America's lax gun laws and the ease with which mentally unstable people can buy weapons of wholesale destruction. Then come rejoinders centering on the political impossibility of common-sense legislation. And then, a lapse back into an indefensible but seemingly inevitable status quo.

It's enough to make most people just want to move on to the next topic - but it shouldn't be. Reasonable gun control is not unconstitutional. It would not violate Americans' freedoms or inhibit hunting or self-defense. And - if political leaders starting with the president would rise from their duck-and-cover position - it need not be a political impossibility.

The alleged shooter in the Tucson, Ariz., rampage, Jared Lee Loughner, used a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol that took the lives of six people and injured 14 others, including Ms. Giffords. Mr. Loughner allegedly fired some 30 bullets in a matter of seconds with the assistance of a special ammunition magazine attached to the weapon. The carnage might have been even greater had bystanders not tackled Mr. Loughner and prevented him from reloading.

The type of magazine used by Mr. Loughner was once banned in the United States. But that brief era of sanity came to an end in 2004, when Congress refused to renew the assault-weapons ban passed in the summer of 1994. Democrats suffered huge defeats in the 1994 midterm elections, and many blamed their support for the gun-control measure, which the National Rifle Association adamantly opposed. Although that election turned on many controversies, including taxes, health-care reform and gays in the military, many Democrats took away a single message: Endorsement of even modest gun-control measures can spell political defeat.

As a candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama nonetheless pledged to revive the assault-weapons ban. These weapons serve no conceivable lawful purpose. Mayors and police chiefs, whose constituencies pay the bloodiest price for traffic in such guns, have pleaded for sensible laws. In Mexico, where assault weapons purchased in the United States have been responsible for tens of thousands of murders, Mr. Obama's counterpart, Felipe Calderon, has lodged similar requests. But President Obama has taken only minor steps toward redeeming Candidate Obama's promise.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control, noted that in the recent midterm elections, 27 Democratic incumbents endorsed by the NRA lost reelection. By contrast, only two of the 101 Democratic representatives who co-sponsored a gun-control bill in the last Congress lost their seats. Support for sensible gun control need not spell the end of a career. If Mr. Obama would lead the way in making the argument, poll numbers on the issue also might begin to shift.

And the argument would be this: Sensible regulations could save lives. Maybe little can be done to prevent a deranged individual from doing harm to others. But there are steps that could limit the harm he can do.

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