Obama on Guns

I suspected that Obama would keep it fairly simple: background checks, real penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchasing, high-capacity magazines, tracing, data, research. Other than the magazines provision, none of that would have any impact on the acquisition and use of firearms by people entitled to possess them. That would have made it obvious how unreasonable the NRA is, and probably split the House Republicans enough to get something through. That might still happen if the Senate breaks the program down into bite-sized pieces.

Instead, the President went wide and big: all of the above, plus a renewed assault weapons ban, stiffer sanctions for gun trafficking, prosecution for ineligible felons who try to buy guns, money to hire extra cops, school security and counselors, and some sort of mental-health agenda.

Still, when Wayne LaPierre says “It’s about banning your guns … PERIOD!” he is obviously Saying The Thing That Is Not. As with the Romney campaign, reporters will have to decide whether to report the falsity of the charge in the same sentence in which they report the charge. Add that to the utterly over-the-top ad targeting Sasha and Malia, and we could finally see the NRA start to lose some of its power.

The same applies to the reflexive Republican accusation that Obama is trying to seize dictatorial power by using his authority as the head of the Executive Branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” As far as I can tell, none of the executive actions he announced today gets anywhere near the line.

Substantively, the minimalist agenda had most of the feasible items likely to actually reduce gun violence. (Not clear that a ban on selling new high-capacity magazines would matter much, but it, plus the AWB, provides a nexus to Newtown. Everyone has to wrestle with the fact that the event that put guns back on the political agenda is so atypical that good legislation will mostly be about something else. An Australian-style ban might or might not work, but it’s nowhere near feasible politically.)

More cops on the street are generally a good investment, especially if they’re used in ways that reduce, rather than increasing, the incarceration rate. And of course anything that prevents state and local layoffs from acting as a drag on economic recover is to be supported. But that’s hardly central here.

What’s done is done, and the battle lines are now drawn. This may serve as the first test of the Obama campaign organization’s capacity to mobilize voters for other purposes. Looking forward to 2014, that could be as important as the substance of gun policy.

Footnote I hope Harry Reid gives his colleagues a chance to vote on a resolution condemning the NRA for using the President’s children in an attack ad.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.