Friday was a day of horror, Saturday a day of shock and Sunday a day of mourning. President Barack Obama hewed to that script when he showed up in Newtown and gave a stem-winder about God and our duty to our children without uttering the word ‘gun’ or stating exactly how he plans to lead us out of this national emergency.
The conventional wisdom said Sunday wasn’t the day, nor Newtown the venue, for policy. I disagree, but I get it. Now, having given his sermon, Mr. Obama should not wait one more day to explain his earthly plan.
That plan should start with the appointment of a Gun Czar. A red state, red-meat Republican with hunting cred, a gun lover who isn’t a gun nut, who can start the serious work that our nation, with 300 million guns in private hands, needs to begin right now.
The Gun Czar should gather a bipartisan room full of the concerned and powerful, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pro-gun moderates like New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and even the NRA, and together map out a national strategy to stop these regular community bloodlettings.
The Gun Czar will have his or her hands full dealing with the traditional entitlement of the gun lobby, but must forge on and ignore those who claim it is a joke to try to take on National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre. The conditions are right today to send him the way of Grover Norquist.
The challenges to be faced are political, societal and psychological, and regulatory, and they must be addressed separately and directly.
The political moment is now. Timing is everything in Washington, and there is not a minute to waste. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is so horrific that even Rupert Murdoch has been begging Mr. Obama to show some leadership on assault weapons. The gallery of dead children has temporarily wiped the smirk off the faces of the NRA lobbyists and sapped the gloat from the weapons dealers.
President Obama should address the nation this week, from the Oval Office, not from a pulpit in Newtown.
His Justice Department has already studied the regulatory part of this conversation, but has so far only whispered about it. According to The New York Times, the Justice Department commissioned a study last year on how to rein in the violence, starting with a stronger background-check system. It recommended things like synching Social Security databases of people receiving mental health disability benefits with the FBI’s gun background check, and increasing to $100 million federal grants to states that share private information with the FBI. The study also suggested that private gun sellers be required to obtain background checks on buyers.
Simple, rational ideas—not even prying the machine guns out of any gun-lover’s cold, dead hands, just trying to make sure they don’t wind up in the hands of maniacs. Who could object? Yet the study was shelved, a piece of election-year cynicism that must weigh heavily on the minds of those who made that decision.
Mr. Obama’s reluctance to say that Second Amendment rights must stop at the doors of our malls and schools is the simpering inverse of the evil Rovian calculus that destroyed the art of compromise for so many years. It is just as shameful and regressive.
There was exactly one single mention of guns in the presidential election debates. During the second debate, Mr. Obama said, “What I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapon ban introduced.”
President Clinton introduced that ban in 1994, but it expired in 2004, and Congressional Republicans refused to renew it. The conventional wisdom on it is that it didn’t work anyway. And the gun lobby used the fact that it had ever even existed to sell more guns.
And sell they did!
Here is where we come to the social-psychological public health part of the challenge. Daunting, maybe insurmountable, but we have no other option than to try.
Nancy Lanza, the laughing, blond suburban mom whose gun collection enabled the Sandy Hook massacre, participated in a national gun ownership surge that, curiously, dates to Mr. Obama’s first election. In the year of the 2008 election, the numbers of American who applied for weapons background checks jumped by more than 1.5 million. In the single month before the last election, in October 2012, the number of Americans applying for background checks, leaped by more than 18 percent.
One reason for the surge is the gun lobby has whipped up its followers to believe President Obama intends to take away their guns. That didn’t happen in his first administration, but with this crowd, paranoia is never far from the surface.
In my humble opinion, there is another, uglier reason why Mr. Obama’s elections have coincided with gun-buying sprees among white Americans, but I leave a discussion of that to another time and place.
Mrs. Lanza is no longer with us to explain what provoked her to start stockpiling weapons in 2009, but one relative and one friend cited fear and insecurity. “She prepared for the worst,” her sister-in-law Marsha Lanza told The Chicago Sun-Times.
The worst happened, and she was most certainly not prepared.
Mrs. Lanza liked board games and craft beer and shooting, but also seems to have been afflicted with a need to arm herself to the teeth. When and how the bug hit her, we don’t know. Reports say she started buying guns after her divorce in 2009. She stocked up on so-called tactical weapons. Cop weapons. A Glock. A Sig Sauer. A semiautomatic rifle called an AR-15, the gun of choice for mass killers of late.
These weapons are not intended for bagging deer and squirrels. There’s only one target for a facsimile of a machine gun, and it walks on two legs.
Soon she was taking her guns and her two sons, one of whom she knew to be mentally ill, to the firing range, donning the goggles, taking aim at paper targets on human figures, living the Rambo fantasy.
The shooting ranges up in Connecticut, which welcomed Mrs. Lanza and her child-murderer-in-training, are scurrying for cover now, refusing to talk to reporters, pretending they never saw the smiling blonde and her twisted kid blasting away.
Collecting and shooting these guns, she joined millions of Americans who are not hunters, who live in a nation defended by the greatest killing machine ever invented by mankind, who are mostly well-housed and -fed, and who yet feel so personally threatened that they stock their homes with weapons of the sort found on remote bases in Afghanistan.
At some point, gun ownership in America tipped from being an outdoor hobby for men and the occasional woman who like to hunt deer and blow away skeet, to a pastime as black as the costumes young male maniacs don before they enter malls, schools and theaters.
The growing popularity of tactical weapons is such that within 100 miles of New York, we now encounter giant billboards on highways advertising shops that sell to civilians weapons that by rights and rationality belong only in the hands of trained soldiers and law enforcement personnel—if that.
Not 10 miles from our house in upstate New York, a new tactical weapons shop opened this year, advertising itself on the highway as “Not Your Father’s Gunshop.” The owner, John Kielbasa, an emigrant from New York City, recently told CNN that Mr. Obama’s election was “good for my business,” and bragged that the morning after the election a man walked in and bought two AK-47s.
A half hour away from Mr. Kielbasa’s establishment, on a back road that leads to the local Walmart, another giant billboard advertises yet another shop selling tactical weapons.
These billboards—nestled among roadside ads for real estate and insurance, barely an hour’s drive from New York City—are signs of dark times, to be sure.
Has it gotten as dark as it will get?
The gun control backlashes in the wake of attacks by Jared Loughner and James Holmes and their analogues over the last decade achieved nothing. But now there’s hope for real change.
The 2012 election is over and 20 first-grade children are dead, shot multiple times with a gun and bullets that no civilian in America needs in his or her home.
A Gun Czar won’t bring back those children and their teachers, no more than any man or woman or government policy can bring back to life the dead in Aurora or Tucson, or restore the bright, shining abilities of Gabby Giffords, forced by a bullet to the brain to resign rather than represent the people of the great state of Arizona, who so desperately need a leader to help them out of their open-carry Death Cult madness.
A Gun Czar can’t cure the American gun sickness. But like any public health campaign, airing the problem with strong leadership makes people think about and recognize it, and slowly, over time, change their habits.
Think smoking, think AIDS, think obesity.
We can do this.
Please Mr. President: Try.