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The Newtown Families and Democracy

President Obama played his strongest card this weekend in the ongoing struggle over gun control legislation when he had one of the parents of the victims of the Newtown massacre deliver his weekly radio address. Francine Wheeler, the mother of one of the 1st-graders murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December delivered an impassioned plea for Americans to join in support of what she and the White House termed the president’s “common sense” proposals. The speech was both eloquent and deeply moving and, like the effects of some of the lobbying visits to members of the House and the Senate by the Newtown parents, obviously effective.

Suffice it to say that so long as the debate about guns is restricted to one between Ms. Wheeler and, say, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, gun rights advocates haven’t got much of a chance. There is no arguing with grief, especially when it is attached to rather amorphous rhetoric about the issue that simply implores Congress to “do something” about guns.

This is a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of those who are seeking to oppose the president or even the bipartisan compromise proposal put forward by pro-gun senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, but there is no use complaining about it. The Newtown parents have a right to speak out on this issue and you can’t blame the media for giving them outsized coverage. But those who believe they can count on this factor cowing the NRA or even more moderate opponents of infringements on the Second Amendment into submission should not overestimate the impact that the pure emotion generated by the relatives of the victims will have in the long run. Such passion is powerful but it is not a substitute for reason. Nor can it be sustained indefinitely. That is why people like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is puffed in a column this weekend by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd saying his goal is to “disenfranchise the N.R.A.,” are not going to succeed.

Sympathy is a powerful motivating factor in any political discussion and the value of the Newtown victims to the anti-gun forces is that it puts their arguments in a context that cannot be directly refuted. The families of the victims, like the survivors of any horrific event, are, by definition, above reproach and must be heard in respectful silence rather than be subjected to the usual and appropriate back and forth that is par for the course for those speaking on any contentious issue. The fact that they have generally couched their statements in a general manner rather than honing in on specifics and avoided lashing out in rage against groups that oppose gun control has only enhanced their appeal.

The piece by the Times‘s queen of snark will be seized on by opponents of the Manchin-Toomey compromise as one more proof that what is at stake here is not just provisions like background checks at gun shows that can truly be characterized as “common sense” measures but just the first step toward a push toward infringing if not effectively annulling the Second Amendment. Murphy, whom Dowd tells us does not even allow his young children to play with toy guns, is not helping liberals persuade Americans that their long-term goal is not widespread restrictions on legal gun ownership.

This illustrates the left’s problem on guns. It can only succeed in advancing their agenda on guns so long as the bloody shirt of Newtown is being waved. When the tears subside and we catch our collective breath, allowing us to look clearly at what the president has proposed, what more and more Americans are seeing is that proposals about so-called assault weapons and ammunition magazines would do little or nothing to lower the volume of gun violence, let alone avoid another Newtown.

The point about the exploitation of the families of the victims in the gun debate is not that there is anything wrong about their statements, even if they were to inject themselves in an even more direct manner in the controversy. Rather, it is that ours is a system of laws not individuals or sentiment. The checks and balances inherent in the system serve to slow down the pace of legislation, which is something that, as Dowd writes, frustrates the Newtown families. But the genius of our constitutional system is that it is designed specifically to mute the voice of the crowd, especially when it is driven by by emotion such as that which liberals and the Newtown families are seeking to harness.

Public opinion is variable, but the Constitution is strong enough to survive even against the assault of liberal ideologues even when sympathetic victims back them. American democracy gives a fair hearing to those who feel their own experiences in tragedies enables them to speak with authority on the issues. But such feelings, no matter how rooted in tragedy or how much pity they compel across the board from their fellow citizens, cannot transform a weak argument about the law into a strong one. 


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