To appreciate how modest are the various gun control proposals offered by the Clinton administration -- and to understand the clout of the National Rifle Association even in the shadow of kids gunning down kids -- consider Lyndon Johnson's battles to pass gun control legislation in the 1960s.
President Clinton fashions himself the first president to engage in this battle. Waving that famous left forefinger at Charlie Gibson on "Good Morning America" after the television host questioned the effectiveness of the administration's proposals, he said angrily, "Let's have an honest conversation. I am the first president who ever took on the NRA."
His statement is not true. Measured against LBJ's demands for national registration of all guns and licensing of all gun owners, the administration's proposals and the "strong" bill that passed the Senate seem more like hitting an elephant with a fly swatter than taking on the NRA. Johnson pressed Congress to prohibit sale of guns to minors, purchase of guns by mail order and importation of cheap "Saturday night specials," then commonly used in street crimes. In 1966 he became the first president to send Congress a message devoted to crime and law enforcement. Until that time gun control had been considered a matter of state responsibility.
Johnson postulated: "It is not enough to say that gun control is a state responsibility. Only the federal government can give the several states and cities their first real chance to enforce their own gun laws."
Calling on Congress to "stop the flow of firearms into dangerous hands," he asked for legislation to "halt blind, unquestioned mail order sales of guns and over-the-counter sales to buyers from out of state whose credentials cannot be known." He argued that "if crime is to be controlled, we must control the weapons with which so many crimes are committed."
In his 1967 State of the Union message, Johnson renewed his call for "strict controls on the sale of firearms." Then LBJ turned up the heat on the NRA. Proposing the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act, he urged "the 90th Congress to place [gun control] high on its agenda in this session" and said further delay would be "unconscionable."
By 1968 LBJ was pressing for registration of all guns and licensing of all gun owners. On the morning after the assassination of Robert Kennedy -- 31 years ago this month -- he said he hoped to salvage something out of "this horrible tragedy for the nation and for Rose Kennedy." He lambasted the NRA and demanded that Congress pass his gun control legislation. He called Senate Judiciary Committee members and fretted that they didn't understand the need to act quickly.
Despite Johnson's pleas, his proposals for registration and licensing failed before an NRA counterattack. He did, however, ram through the law that prohibited gun sales to minors, importation of Saturday night specials and mail-order purchase of guns.
When he signed the law, Johnson did not hide his anger. "I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry guns," Johnson reprimanded the Democratic Congress. He charged that "the voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for a moment in an election year."
Although Clinton occasionally mentions gun registration, he has not even asked Congress to require registration of all guns and licensing of all gun owners. He is sensitive to the concerns of many House Democrats that tough talk about guns and legislation passed in the last Congress may have cost the party control of the House. Moreover, many more Democrats would oppose registration and licensing than the 45 who voted for the Dingell amendment to gut the recent House bill, making it impossible for the administration to posture gun control as a partisan issue.
Trigger locks might help prevent accidents, and stepped-up background checks might keep some weapons out of dangerous hands. But these efforts are at the margin. In a nation that registers all cars and licenses all drivers, our national leaders should muster the courage to do the same for guns and gun owners. If Clinton wants to do more than maneuver for partisan points, he could make gun registration and licensing a priority.
The day LBJ signed the 1968 gun control law, he wrote to Post editorial writer Alan Barth to thank him for his many editorials laying the groundwork for federal gun control legislation.
If Clinton gets to sign some sort of gun control legislation, he might take the opportunity to acknowledge that another president "took on" the NRA and got Congress to act. And he could use the occasion to kick off an effort to get every gun owner in America licensed and every gun registered.
The writer was President Lyndon B. Johnson's special assistant for domestic affairs.