President Obama's timid words on gun reform

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Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:37 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S somewhat timid op-ed about gun laws last Sunday has sparked debate, particularly among his supporters. We, too, wish he would speak more forthrightly about the causes of gun violence - and the steps that aren't being taken to reduce it. We understand where the primary obstacles lie, and they're not in the White House. But the White House could do more to shape the debate in a sensible direction.

Mr. Obama published his op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star because of the shootings that took place just outside Tucson two months ago. "[I]n the attack's turbulent wake," Mr. Obama wrote, "Americans by and large rightly refrained from finger-pointing, assigning blame or playing politics with other people's pain.

"But one clear and terrible fact remains. A man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun."

The president went on to lament the existence of gaps in the national system for background checks that allowed Jared Lee Loughner to purchase a semiautomatic weapon to gun down 19 people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Mr. Obama called for an "instant, accurate, comprehensive and consistent system" for such checks, although he did not offer specifics. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently introduced legislation that seeks to expand required background checks to a wider swath of private sales; that legislation should serve as a starting point for discussion.

Then Mr. Obama went on to not say quite a lot. He did not address a possible revival of the assault weapons ban, a measure that Candidate Obama endorsed and that would have prohibited the sale of the high-capacity magazine that Mr. Loughner used to exact his toll. He stopped short of calling for closure of the gun-show loophole - another proposal Mr. Obama favored - that would require all potential purchasers to undergo a background check. These measures could help reduce the thousands of gun-related murders that occur each year and perhaps save many more lives in Mexico, where vicious drug cartels have murdered thousands with the help of weapons smuggled in from the United States.

Lest he be caricatured as a gun-control advocate, Mr. Obama reminded the public that his administration "expanded" Second Amendment rights by supporting measures - inane and politically expedient measures - that allow "people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges."

Administration aides say that it took guts for Mr. Obama to speak out at all and note that even a modest gesture by the commander in chief can spur progress. They also argue that pushing more ambitious reforms would be meaningless, given how little chance there is of getting congressional buy-in. They point to the childish intransigence of the National Rifle Association, which declined to participate in the administration's "listening tour" on gun issues.

We agree that there's not much to be gained by proposing legislation that is sure to fail. We're glad Mr. Obama chose to discuss the issue and hope he stays with the topic, as he promised in the op-ed: "Clearly, there's more we can do to prevent gun violence. But I want this to at least be the beginning of a new discussion on how we can keep America safe for all our people." He could make that discussion more useful by talking about sensible gun controls, even ones that might not become law in the next year or two.


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