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Gun Control and the Obama Way

On President Obama’s proposal for curbing gun violence, I have several thoughts.

1. Even when I agree in substance with the president, as I do in this instance, I find his combination of self-righteousness and demagoguery to be off-putting. In his remarks earlier today, for example, the president once again took to the task of demonizing his opponents, something he does more promiscuously than any president I can recall.

For Mr. Obama, it’s never about honest differences over policies. His political opponents have to be painted as morally obtuse, cruel and motivated by the basest considerations. (The president, of course, is always portraying himself as hovering far above politics, a man of stainless integrity and motives that are pure as the driven snow. Which is quite a feat for a man who ran a billion-dollar campaign of unusual ruthlessness and dishonesty.)

In this instance, Mr. Obama posed the choices this way: Are members of Congress doing what it takes to “get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns? Or giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to 1st grade?” It’s not that his critics believe his proposals will be worthless or even wrong. No, their motivation is to “gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves.”

I happen to know people–good, decent, and thoughtful people–who disagree with me on guns. They are more absolutist on the Second Amendment than I am. And shockingly, they care about their children as much as Mr. Obama does. In fact, many of them care for their unborn children far more than Obama does.

Mr. Obama’s political libel is so common that people have come to accept it. And journalists who jump on back-benchers from the GOP for their incivility never call out Obama on his ugly little game. I wonder if Obama understands how much damage he’s doing to America’s political culture, or if he even cares.

2. As for the substance of what the president is advocating: He’s calling for expanded background checks, broader sharing of databases among law enforcement officials, more aggressive prosecutions for crimes under existing laws, prohibition of high-capacity magazine clips (like the 30-round magazines that the police said Adam Lanza used in the Newton massacre), improving mental-health reporting requirements by federal agencies, calling on the CDC to conduct research on gun violence, bans on certain types of semi-automatic rifles, and blocking the importation of certain guns made overseas. 

Most of these measures sound fairly reasonable to me. And whether or not I’m right about that, these steps do not qualify as an assault on the Second Amendment.

As Justice Antonin Scalia has pointed out in United States v. Heller, like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It leaves room to regulate guns; you don’t have a constitutional right to own a RPG or a machine gun.

What we’re talking about, then, is a prudential application of restrictions on guns. I would prefer that the president advance his agenda through legislation rather than through 23 executive orders, in order to respect the separation of powers and the role of Congress in such matters. But in terms of the substance of what he wants, I for one find the proposals to be unobjectionable and in some cases meritorious.

3. What about the slippery-slope argument? It’s true that we need to be more alert to it with some presidents than others. But as George Will once said, life is lived on a slippery slope. Taxation can become confiscation, he pointed out, and police could become Gestapos. One could invoke the slippery slope argument in order to undo seat belt laws and argue that people should be able to own machine guns and M-1 tanks. Resorting to the slippery-slope argument is often, though not always, a sign of intellectual laziness. It can also be a concession that a person doesn’t feel confident they can win on the merits of the particular case, so they decide to manufacture another debate. So an argument about restricting 30-round magazines becomes a debate about the right to bear arms, when in fact they’re separable. 

4. Having said all this, my guess is that the proposals by the president will have very modest, and almost certainly no appreciable, effect on gun violence. Most of the proposals being advocated would have done nothing to stop the mass killings of recent years–and those that directly bear on them could be relatively easily overcome by sociopaths. I’ve also pointed out before that respected studies have found that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective. I actually think that having a greater police presence at schools would do more to curb violence than anything the president is proposing. That seems to me to be an obvious conclusion; the only question is how practical and costly it might be.

All of which means the Obama proposals are, I think, fairly reasonable, but they may well prove to be nugatory. We should therefore go into this with modest expectations and pay attention to what the empirical findings show.

5. If some on the right are too critical of what the president is trying to do, then some on the left are engaged in moral posturing and an obsessive fixation with gun control. CNN, and Piers Morgan in particular, seem most guilty of this. They have devoted countless hours to the gun issue, arguing for steps that at best might be marginally effective. The heat and anger this debate is generating is odd, given that the things we’re talking about are minor changes that probably won’t have any measurable effect on violence, which itself has dropped massively since the mid-1990s.

6. In his comments today Mr. Obama mentioned that “more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun in the past month.” Is it indecorous to point out that deaths on this scale were happening during Obama’s first term, yet he didn’t lift a finger on gun control? Which, to turn the tables on Mr. Obama, raises the question: Was he cruelly indifferent to these killings? 

In addition, the president’s proposals today would have done virtually nothing to save any of those 900 lives. So why doesn’t the president endorse what from his perspective would be real steps to curb gun violence, such as those taken in Australia, where, as the New York Times points out, a 1996 mass shooting led to banning the sale, importation and possession of semiautomatic rifles and by removing 700,000 guns from circulation.

Is it that Mr. Obama has no interest in giving parents some piece of mind when they drop their child off to 1st grade? Was he afraid of taking on the NRA? Was he afraid Democrats might lose seats in Congress? Or maybe he is icily indifferent to the 6,220 people who were killed by handguns in 2011 (versus 323 by rifles). Why doesn’t the president show the political courage to argue for removing handguns from Americans in order to protect the most vulnerable among us? One possibility is that Obama, for political reasons, isn’t willing to do what most of us believe he’d like to do, which would make him no better than those he castigates.

7. One final comment on Obama’s rhetorical tricks. On both same-sex marriage and raising the debt-limit ceiling, Obama was against those things before he was for them. But Obama, being Obama, has to characterize those who hold positions he once held as moral cretins and nihilists.

Call it the Obama way. Even on those rare occasions when I find myself in agreement with Mr. Obama, I cannot help but find his haughtiness and hypocrisy a bit difficult to take. My guess is I’m not alone. 


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