Obama takes up gun control
Even initiating a debate on gun control in the US is to raise a storm. And even after the slaughter of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, the gun lobby in the form of the National Rifle Association, has Congress so firmly in its grip that it can shape, limit, and emasculate the scope of any debate that President Barack Obama launches in the next few days. It promises nevertheless to be the biggest congressional fight over guns in two decades.
The control of handguns is a case in point, and, as a columnist in the Washington Post yesterday complained plaintively, most certainly not on the agenda for discussion. Although as recently as the late 1960s the Democratic Party was prepared to advocate the wholesale confiscation of handguns and abolition of the right to own one, politically, and thanks to the supreme court, they are now out of bounds as an issue, although accounting for the vast majority of the 100,000 or so annual shootings (one million gun deaths since 1968).
Regrettably, the debate will occupy a different, more restricted terrain. Mr Obama is expected to throw his weight behind a package of measures recommended by a committee chaired by Vice-President Joe Biden including legislation to expand background checks on those who buy guns, and a number of executive decisions that do not require congressional approval. Although likely to disappoint the gun control lobby, they are certain to provoke a virulent reaction, with one Republican congressman already threatening Obama with impeachment.
Actions the president could take on his own are likely to include imposing new limits on gun imports, compelling federal agencies to improve sharing of mental health records and commissioning research on gun violence. He can also ratchet up enforcement of existing laws, including tougher prosecution of people who lie on their background checks. Any serious legislative package is likely to require criminal and mental health background checks on every gun buyer, a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and laws against gun trafficking. But while congressional majorities may be achievable on improved background checks and sharing of data, the restoration of the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 will prove enormously difficult.
In the country, however, there is broader support for Obama. A poll in the Post yesterday, which recorded that 44 per cent of homes own a gun, found broad bipartisan support for mandatory background checks at gun shows and that some 58 per cent support the assault weapons ban. More than half of those surveyed say that the Newtown killings made them more supportive of gun control. The members of Congress are another matter.