Commentary Magazine


Topic: assault weapons ban

Can the NRA Stop Helping Obama?

President Obama’s campaign for his package of gun control proposals has uncertain prospects in Congress. But a day after he surrounded himself with children and family members of the victims of the Newtown massacre it’s clear his purpose is not so much to ban assault weapons as it is to energize liberals and demonize the National Rifle Association. The emotional nature of his presentation made it clear that if he has his way the upcoming debate on the issue would center on whether you want to keep 1st graders safe and not on whether a new assault weapons ban or any of the other ideas would actually do anything to prevent another Newtown, or similar shootings. The open question is whether gun rights advocates can distract the Senate and the public from this dramatic talk about dead children to the more sober one of how any of this will actually make Americans safer.

At the core of the answer to that query is the group that is supposedly leading the charge against Obama’s proposals. For decades the NRA has used its mass membership and clout on Capitol Hill to maintain a firewall of resistance to any infringement of the rights of gun owners. There is no reason to believe that support or clout has evaporated, but the fate of the president’s gun campaign may hinge on whether the NRA has become more of a liability to opponents of limitations on gun ownership than an asset. Liberals speak of a changed dynamic in the national conversation about guns after Newtown, but that may have more to do with the way the NRA has unwittingly played into the hands of the president over the last month. From its initial post-Newtown press conference, which turned into a public relations disaster, to its equally foolish ad that mentioned the president’s daughters, it has rapidly become clear that the NRA has become the president’s best ally in his effort to bulldoze opposition to a new assault weapons ban. While the chances of the president being able to get his way in Congress remain slight, every NRA blunder makes them seem a bit more realistic.

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President Obama’s campaign for his package of gun control proposals has uncertain prospects in Congress. But a day after he surrounded himself with children and family members of the victims of the Newtown massacre it’s clear his purpose is not so much to ban assault weapons as it is to energize liberals and demonize the National Rifle Association. The emotional nature of his presentation made it clear that if he has his way the upcoming debate on the issue would center on whether you want to keep 1st graders safe and not on whether a new assault weapons ban or any of the other ideas would actually do anything to prevent another Newtown, or similar shootings. The open question is whether gun rights advocates can distract the Senate and the public from this dramatic talk about dead children to the more sober one of how any of this will actually make Americans safer.

At the core of the answer to that query is the group that is supposedly leading the charge against Obama’s proposals. For decades the NRA has used its mass membership and clout on Capitol Hill to maintain a firewall of resistance to any infringement of the rights of gun owners. There is no reason to believe that support or clout has evaporated, but the fate of the president’s gun campaign may hinge on whether the NRA has become more of a liability to opponents of limitations on gun ownership than an asset. Liberals speak of a changed dynamic in the national conversation about guns after Newtown, but that may have more to do with the way the NRA has unwittingly played into the hands of the president over the last month. From its initial post-Newtown press conference, which turned into a public relations disaster, to its equally foolish ad that mentioned the president’s daughters, it has rapidly become clear that the NRA has become the president’s best ally in his effort to bulldoze opposition to a new assault weapons ban. While the chances of the president being able to get his way in Congress remain slight, every NRA blunder makes them seem a bit more realistic.

The NRA can point to the fact that its membership has grown in the weeks since Newtown. Its advocacy for more security for schools is popular as is its attempt to divert attention away from guns to video games even though that makes it look as if it is trying to save the Second Amendment by throwing the First under the bus.

The NRA’s efforts to persuade Senate Democrats not to back another assault weapons ban will also be strengthened by the confusion over which rifles fall under that rubric. As the New York Times noted in a feature today, the differences between most standard hunting rifles and those that might be called assault weapons may have more to do with cosmetic features, such as grips, than an ability to fire rapidly. Gun control advocates don’t want an assault weapons ban that will be drawn so narrowly as to leave out lots of weapons (Connecticut’s assault weapons ban did not include the AR-15, which was used in the Newtown murders), but if the law is written broadly it will be easier for the NRA to paint it as an effort to take legal sporting guns away from law-abiding citizens.

Like its counterparts on the left that support abortion, the NRA has often opposed even the most reasonable of gun control ideas because they saw them as the thin edge of the wedge of a movement to ban all guns. Though both the president and Vice President Biden continue to speak of their support for Second Amendment rights, far-reaching legislation will still be seen by many Americans as a manifestation of liberal disdain for gun rights rather than a reasonable attempt to limit weapons that are strictly military in nature.

The divide between urban and rural America about the role of guns in American culture and history has always been so great as to confound any attempt to make this a partisan issue. Gun control is doomed while Democrats and Republicans who represent districts outside of cities and suburbs are united in their desire to get “A” ratings from the NRA.

But the wild card in this equation is the president’s ability to demonize his opponents. If the conflict is between a Democratic president and the average American gun owner, the president will lose. But a standoff between the president and an NRA that can be depicted as the heartless foe of child safety and the cat’s paw of profiteering gun manufacturers is one the White House can win. That’s why the NRA’s decision to run the ad that mentioned Obama’s children was such a crucial blunder leading up to the president’s news conference yesterday. It played right into the White House’s talking points about their insensitivity and made the group seem like a bully.

The president can’t get his way on assault weapons so long as the debate is one that rests on logic and the facts about what will or won’t stop mass shootings. But so long as the focus is on the NRA, the president has a chance to win this battle. The switch from using the strident Wayne LaPierre as the group’s point man in the media to the more reasonable David Keene was a good decision. But even with Keene in the spotlight, it should be understood that the group is a natural piñata for both liberals and the media that may do their cause more harm than good.

Every PR blunder and misguided ad from the NRA is a gift to the president, as he successfully manipulates the nation’s emotional reaction to Newtown. As difficult as it may be for the NRA’s supporters to accept this, their best chance of prevailing in the Congress is to move out of the media spotlight and concentrate on low-key lobbying. The alternative will be to go on helping Obama by providing him with the straw man he needs to win a ban that gun owners feel will be only the first step toward the undermining of the Second Amendment.

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Gun Push Is About Second Term Momentum

Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

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Even before President Obama announced his much-ballyhooed package of gun control proposals it was already clear that he had little or no chance to gain passage of the most talked about element of the package: a new assault weapons ban. Nor, as even as sympathetic a forum as the New York Times noted, was there much connection between most of what he is putting forward and the Newtown shooting, which serves as the impetus for raising this issue. Yet with the family members of the victims and children who wrote letters to the White House around them today, the president is plowing ahead determined to make the most of this opportunity to put an emotional issue at the center of the nation’s political agenda.

The president’s decision to go big with his gun proposal is made possible by the country’s shock and horror over the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet the far-ranging list of executive action and proposed laws is intended to deal with what the president called an epidemic of gun violence, not more incidents like Newtown. Some of them are anodyne in nature and unlikely to prompt much in the way of serious protest. Others, like the idea of a universal background check, are also designed to gain broad support. But the event held today isn’t going to lead to anything that will prevent another such atrocity. What it is designed to do is to give the president an emotional issue with which he can generate momentum that will start his second term on a strong note and with his Congressional opponents on the defensive.

Senate Democrats have already signaled to the president that they are not interested in a vote on an assault weapons ban even if passing it there would put the onus on House Republicans who will vote it down if it gets to them. Though the president used dramatic rhetoric about the need for more gun regulations today, it is doubtful that invoking the victims of Newtown and other tragedies will convince Congress to pass weapons bans that won’t do much to reduce crime. Nor is the unpopularity of the National Rifle Association or their bungling attempts to push back at NRA critics enough to produce the sort of sweeping legislation that would conform to the president’s wishes.

But the use of the White House ceremony as a bully pulpit to hound Congress on guns does give the president a stick with which he can beat Republicans both this year and perhaps even next year at the midterm elections.

President Obama vowed to go the mat to get Congress to support his proposals, but this push should not be seen as unrelated to the other conflicts the White House will be having with the GOP. The rhetoric and the tone of the president’s statements about guns are clearly aimed at isolating Republicans and branding them as extremists in much the same way he has spoken about raising the debt ceiling and taxes. He clearly hopes to win at least some of the fights he is picking with them on guns just as he has did with the fiscal cliff. But even if he loses, the overall strategy here is not so much about getting any specific measures passed as it is to brand his opponents as irresponsible and heartless.

The president knows that his re-election gives him a finite amount of political capital and a limited amount of time to use it. Most of his predecessors have squandered their second terms on failed efforts, like George W. Bush’s immigration and entitlement reform proposals, and were quickly reduced to the status of lame ducks. But exploiting Newtown in this manner even if he doesn’t get his way on assault weapons has the potential to give President Obama the ability to stay on the offensive and keep Republicans off-balance and reacting to his initiatives, rather than attacking on their issues like cutting spending. With the help of an always pliant mainstream media that is happy to let liberals drape themselves in the bloody garments of the Newtown massacre, President Obama may have given himself a major momentum surge no matter what happens in Congress to this legislation.

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The Gun Control Bubble Pops

In the weeks since the Newtown shooting, the conventional wisdom has been that the country was so outraged about gun violence that the basic rules of Washington politics had been forever altered. The assumption was that a re-elected President Obama would get any sort of gun control legislation passed that he wanted and that the National Rifle Association would be powerless to stop him. But even before next Tuesday’s announcement of the recommendations made to the president by Vice President Biden, it appears as if everyone in the capital knows that it is highly unlikely that the administration will be able to pass any sort of major gun control bill. That’s the upshot of a New York Times article published this morning which, following up on the hints dropped by Biden yesterday, made it clear that the White House was probably more interested in lowering expectations about what they could achieve than bashing the NRA.

This has to leave a lot of liberals, who have been watching the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC spend the last month telling them that the Republicans would reinforce their status as the “stupid party” if they tried to obstruct Obama’s gun plans, wondering what happened. It turns out that the while most Americans probably support measures calling for more background checks or restrictions on ammunition, the massive shift in public opinion and among politicians that we were told had happened since Newtown is a figment of the liberal imagination. As even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on “Morning Joe” today, an attempt to reinstate an assault weapons ban or to pass a more far-reaching gun ban is never going to be passed.

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In the weeks since the Newtown shooting, the conventional wisdom has been that the country was so outraged about gun violence that the basic rules of Washington politics had been forever altered. The assumption was that a re-elected President Obama would get any sort of gun control legislation passed that he wanted and that the National Rifle Association would be powerless to stop him. But even before next Tuesday’s announcement of the recommendations made to the president by Vice President Biden, it appears as if everyone in the capital knows that it is highly unlikely that the administration will be able to pass any sort of major gun control bill. That’s the upshot of a New York Times article published this morning which, following up on the hints dropped by Biden yesterday, made it clear that the White House was probably more interested in lowering expectations about what they could achieve than bashing the NRA.

This has to leave a lot of liberals, who have been watching the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC spend the last month telling them that the Republicans would reinforce their status as the “stupid party” if they tried to obstruct Obama’s gun plans, wondering what happened. It turns out that the while most Americans probably support measures calling for more background checks or restrictions on ammunition, the massive shift in public opinion and among politicians that we were told had happened since Newtown is a figment of the liberal imagination. As even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on “Morning Joe” today, an attempt to reinstate an assault weapons ban or to pass a more far-reaching gun ban is never going to be passed.

That’s got to puzzle those who were certain that Newtown had fundamentally changed the discussion in this country about guns. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel points out in an insightful analysis today, the president can’t even count on Democratic support for an assault weapons ban, let alone Republicans. Indeed, it’s far from clear that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Joe Manchin, who was the media’s poster child for gun lovers who had seen the light, will back an assault weapons ban.

The president may talk about more gun control and Newtown in his second inaugural speech and hope it will be a useful stick with which to keep beating Republicans. But since the House will wait to see if anything passes the Senate before voting it down, the odds are that it will be Senate Democrats who fear being portrayed as foes of the Second Amendment that will be the ones administering the coup de grace on any far-reaching legislation that Biden puts forward.

Moreover, the notion that the White House will prioritize the gun issue in the coming months also fails to take into account that the president has a much more important fight on his hands with the budget and the upcoming debt ceiling showdown. Since he is in a stronger position on that one, not to mention that the state of the economy will have a lot more to do with whether his second term turns out to be a nightmare, gun control advocates are probably dreaming if they think Obama will spend much of his finite political capital on assault weapons.

This shouldn’t cause anyone to think that the NRA is totally out of the woods. Senate Democrats who don’t dare ban weapons will look to support some part of Biden’s proposals. That means the gun lobby will probably lose some part of this battle since the White House appears to be willing to take what they can get rather than waste the coming months pushing a forlorn hope.

But the main point to take away from this turnaround is the fashion in which media elites are disconnected from political reality.

The aftermath of Newtown did give gun control advocates an opening to refloat all of their old proposals with more traction than they have had in many years. And the NRA flubbed the aftermath of the shooting with a press conference that was remarkable for its tone and cluelessness.

But none of that changes the fact that there is still a reliable majority in Congress that is opposed to infringement on the right to possess guns and little proof that any such legislation would stop tragedies like Newtown from happening. There is probably a consensus that can be built on issues on the margin of this issue, like background checks, but nothing more.

That so many talking heads blithely assumed that all this would change after Newtown was merely wishful thinking on their part. That’s something to remember the next time liberals make similar assumptions about the conventional wisdom that they are trying to foist on the country.

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Cuomo Does the NRA a Favor

Governor Andrew Cuomo was merely appealing to his blue state liberal base when he said recently that “confiscation could be an option” when considering possible changes in New York’s gun laws. Since then, Cuomo has acknowledged that forcing citizens to give up their legally owned firearms is not the most practical idea to emanate from Albany. New York already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, including an assault weapons ban. But Cuomo, like President Obama, is looking to capitalize on the public outrage about the Newtown massacre to build up support for even more restrictions on gun ownership.

Given that the existing gun laws—which are aimed at making possession of a weapon more difficult for law-abiding citizens—don’t seem to have made it harder for criminals to obtain illegal guns, it’s not clear that a new round of legislation at either the federal or the state level is going to do much to prevent a repeat of Newtown in which a crazed gunman runs amuck. But you can bet that Cuomo’s loose talk about “confiscation” will do wonders for the National Rifle Association’s fundraising campaign.

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Governor Andrew Cuomo was merely appealing to his blue state liberal base when he said recently that “confiscation could be an option” when considering possible changes in New York’s gun laws. Since then, Cuomo has acknowledged that forcing citizens to give up their legally owned firearms is not the most practical idea to emanate from Albany. New York already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, including an assault weapons ban. But Cuomo, like President Obama, is looking to capitalize on the public outrage about the Newtown massacre to build up support for even more restrictions on gun ownership.

Given that the existing gun laws—which are aimed at making possession of a weapon more difficult for law-abiding citizens—don’t seem to have made it harder for criminals to obtain illegal guns, it’s not clear that a new round of legislation at either the federal or the state level is going to do much to prevent a repeat of Newtown in which a crazed gunman runs amuck. But you can bet that Cuomo’s loose talk about “confiscation” will do wonders for the National Rifle Association’s fundraising campaign.

Democrats like Cuomo are on firm ground when they speak of tightening the laws on assault weapons as well as restricting the sale of ammunition clips that give shooters the ability to fire massive amounts of bullets in a short space of time. Most Americans, even those that own guns and support Second Amendment rights, are amenable to the notion that government has the right to regulate military-style weapons. That is the sort of thing that strikes most people as reasonable. In the aftermath of Newtown there is an appetite for more gun control, and so long as those laws don’t impinge on basic gun rights, they are likely to pass in the changed political climate since the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But the moment a prominent liberal office-holder starts talking about governmental measures that involve taking away firearms that were legally obtained, they are doing the NRA a favor. The group’s down-the-line opposition to even the most reasonable of gun regulations stems from a belief that any restriction on gun ownership is the thin edge of the wedge toward abolition of the right to bear arms. That’s why groups that seek to promote gun control, such as the one just founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband to oppose the NRA, have been at pains to say that they don’t want to take away guns from citizens.

Initiatives like the ones championed by Cuomo or the one being cooked up by Vice President Biden at President Obama’s behest aren’t likely to accomplish much. The virtues of new legislation for Democrats are primarily political. New laws allow them to claim they are doing something to stop another Newtown even if it doesn’t address the vital issue of mental health. They also appeal to their liberal base that longs to hear more talk about confiscation.

But the more liberals talk about taking away legal guns the better things are for the NRA. The group shot itself in the foot last month with a ham-handed and insensitive response to Newtown that put it very much on the political defensive. They have yet to recover from that blunder. But comments like those of Cuomo are catnip to the NRA, since they are certain to energize their donors and activists and scare members of Congress who may have been wavering in their loyalty to the group’s demands after Newtown. No matter what changes are made to New York’s already vast body of gun restrictions, Cuomo’s quote will be a gift that keeps on giving to the NRA for years to come.

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The Gun Control Moment

There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

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There is little doubt that the Newtown killings have materially changed the discussion in this country about guns. The shock and horror about the murder of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School has created a demand for some sort of action by the government that will assuage the public’s need to believe that another school massacre can somehow be prevented. The result is that President Obama has the opportunity to pursue an assault weapons ban or restrictions on ammunition without having to worry very much about the usually vociferous opposition to such measures from the National Rifle Association and its many supporters.

That such measures are unlikely to prevent mentally unstable persons from obtaining weapons is almost beside the point. Governments cannot legislate the abolition of the sort of evil that led a disturbed individual to kill children in Connecticut last Friday. Nor is it likely or even desirable that Washington seeks to restrict the rights of Hollywood or video game makers that produce the sort of violent entertainment that creates the culture of violence that may also contribute to crime. Sadly, there is little likelihood that any of this will lead to a push to give more funding to the sort of mental health issues that do lead directly to violence.

Yet at a time when the public wants something done, any solution that speaks to the revulsion people feel about the slaughter of 1st-graders will provide a degree of catharsis. With even pro-gun legislators saying they will support gun control and the NRA effectively silenced, the field is open for a game-changing push from the White House. The question is not whether it will happen but whether the president will overreach.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said of the 2008 financial meltdown “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That sort of thinking led to a decision to exploit the situation to push through a liberal wish list in the form of a trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The former failed to revive the economy and the latter bogged the administration down in a crippling debate when its political capital might have been better spent on efforts to bring down the unemployment rate. Yet the president’s re-election last month may have convinced him that he was right all along about everything even if the new year may bring worse economic news that the implementation of ObamaCare will only exacerbate.

If the president opts for a quick, limited push on assault weapons that will allow him to say he has responded to Newtown effectively, the result will likely be an easy victory that will enable him to start off his second term on a positive note. However, the temptation to exploit this gun control moment may be overwhelming.

Liberal interest groups see the emotional reaction to Newtown as their chance to roll back gun rights in a way that would have been unimaginable only a week ago. But if Obama listens to them, he could overplay his hand and risk losing the support of the vast majority of Americans who support sensible restrictions on military-style weapons but not anything that smacks of an attack on the Second Amendment. The gun control moment is here, but the president and his supporters need to be wary of misinterpreting the reaction to Newtown with an overreach that could be a crippling mistake.

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