Addressing a crowd of bereaved parents, students and residents of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of Friday's horrific massacre of school children and teachers, President Obama spoke eloquently Sunday of the nation's need to do more to protect children. "We can't tolerate this anymore," he said. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
The sentiment is there, and so are the facts: America has far higher rates of gun violence and murder than any other rich western nation. But to foster change, we need to see political leadership, and a specific agenda.
At the top of the list should be a renewed ban on the sale and purchase of semi-automatic assault rifles -- a ban stronger than the one that existed from 1994 to 2004, until President George W. Bush allowed it to expire. Also needed are collateral bans on certain types of highly destructive ammunition, and on the large clips and magazines used in assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols for rapid-fire, high-volume delivery of death.
The nation also must establish a comprehensive, uniform legal framework for thorough background and mental health checks at all levels of gun sales and trades, from gun stores to online sites to private sellers. These checks must be applied equally in all states, with particular focus on states, including Tennessee, that have refused sensible gun control, and that still allow wide-open gun shows and private sales without any background checks on private seller-and-buyer transactions.
These are the least of necessary reforms to begin to reverse the social ethos that glorifies guns and holds them above all other civil rights, including public safety. Other measures on a sensible reform agenda would include computer-chip trigger locks, a reversal of widened gun-carry rights in bars, schools, parks and theaters, and a tighter rein on the so-called "stand your ground" laws that now effectively amount to "kill-at-will" laws in too many cases.
Gaining the sort of meaningful change that would help the nation climb out of an unencumbered gun culture, of course, promises to be a daunting political battle. Indeed, it requires a leap of faith nowadays even to hope that President Obama, Democrats -- and perhaps some Republicans fed-up with kowtowing to the NRA gun lobby -- would have the gumption to try hard to tighten the nation's loose gun laws.
Though most Americans do not own a gun, the gun lobby has as much clout as any major lobbying machine has had in recent decades at both the state and national levels. Republicans defend the NRA's agenda for increasingly expansive gun rights because the gun lobby has become a solid faction in its wedge-issue-oriented campaign umbrella. It's in lock-step with the GOP's anti-gay, anti-abortion, and evangelical forces. The NRA is also more punitive than most against politicians who fail to do its bidding -- as the frequent NRA-funded defeats of recalcitrant politicians proves.
It is deeply entrenched at the state level with the American Legislative Exchange Council (known as ALEC), a national organization largely funded by corporations and rich industrialists. ALEC operates by trading favors with various rightist wedge-issue groups for support of state legislation that helps business interests defeat fair taxes and labor laws. ALEC "model" bills, like those regularly adopted by Tennessee and other states, have included all the NRA gun-right expansions in recent years.
With this kind of widespread lobbying support from lawmakers, the NRA and its indebted GOP lackeys will raise an unending ruckus against tighter gun laws. Obama and Democrats recognize that Republicans are already girded for war over unfettered gun rights. So if the public doesn't loudly and persistently demand and support reform of gun laws, it won't happen.