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Joseph A. Califano Jr. Headshot

Obama's Opportunity

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With the tragedy in Tucson, President Barack Obama has the best opportunity of any president to get significant gun control legislation since Lyndon Johnson pushed through a gun control bill in 1968 in the wake of the Robert Kennedy assassination. But he has to act aggressively and fast.

In 1966, LBJ proposed gun control legislation to ban all mail-order and out of state sales of hand guns, shotguns and rifles; stop the sale of guns to minors; and require national registration of guns and licensing of gun owners. Despite energetic efforts, supported by almost weekly editorials in the Washington Post written by Alan Barth, Johnson was unable to convince Congress to act. In the Senate, he could not even get his bill out of the Judiciary Committee.

LBJ always tried to get something of value out of every tragedy. He persuaded Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations as a tribute to the slain president John F. Kennedy. On the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. he pressed House Speaker John McCormack and Minority Leader Gerald Ford to pass the Fair Housing bill which had been bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee for three years.

LBJ pressed Congress to enact his gun control proposals as a legacy for Robert Kennedy in the wake of that assassination.

"We have two weeks," he told me, "Maybe only ten days to get this bill out of the Senate. After that, the gun lobby will defeat us."

Unfortunately we were unable to get the Senate Judiciary Committee to act fast enough. It took more than a month to get the committee to consider our bill. As a result of a tie vote, we were unable to get the committee to report it out. With Herculean efforts (and some strategically placed public projects), LBJ was able to move some parts of his bill to the Senate floor. The Senate passed his provisions to stop mail order sales and sales of lethal weapons to minors, as well as importation of $10 dollar "Saturday night specials." But the gun lobby killed LBJ's proposals to require licensing gun owners and registration of guns.

In signing the bill in the Cabinet Room on October 22, 1968, Johnson said:

"The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby that has prevailed for the moment in an election year... We have been through a great deal of anguish these past few months and these last few years -- too much anguish to forget so quickly... So now we must complete the task which this long needed legislation begins."

Obama now has an opportunity to complete this task. Unlike LBJ, who by the fall of 1968 was a lame duck hobbled by his pursuit of civil rights and an unpopular war, Obama is strengthened by his remarkable legislative successes in December and his brilliant and healing speech in Tucson.

But he must learn the lesson of timeliness. If he pushes for immediate action aggressively and emotionally in his State of the Union message next week, he has an extraordinary opportunity -- the best in half a century -- for real gun control, not just banning automatic weapons and super size cartridges, but licensing all gun owners and registering all guns than any president has had in half a century. Let's hope he picks up the standard, as he has with health care, and completes the task begun in 1968 by LBJ for comprehensive gun control.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is Founder and Chairman of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was President Lyndon B. Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1977 to 1979.