One week after the Newtown massacre, it's clear that we Americans are in for a long overdue debate on what we can do to fashion what former President George H.W. Bush called "a kinder, gentler nation."
The challenge is mind-boggling. The statisticians tell us that gun violence overall is actually in decline, but it's clear that the easy availability and killing power of modern firearms, particularly automatic and semi-automatic rifles with oversized magazines, remains a huge problem.
Beyond that, most Americans sense that the violence that pervades today's movies, television and uncounted thousands of websites has desensitized our culture and that even the wisest of our mental health professionals don't REALLY understand or know how to thwart the demons that drive people like Adam Lanza.
My personal hope, as a pastor, former congressman and now the head of Common Cause, is that President Obama will propose initiatives in all these areas. I'm encouraged that he's assembled a task force of senior administration officials, led by Vice President Biden, to study the issue and has put them on a tight deadline to produce a plan.
As the President has suggested, we can't eliminate mass violence. But we can reduce it and we surely have a moral obligation to try. I'm an optimist; I believe Americans are smart enough to find ways to make our country and our kids safer while preserving personal liberty, including the right to bear arms, and rejecting off-the-wall "solutions" like the National Rifle Association's plan to put armed cops in every schoolhouse, every day.
I'm absolutely convinced however, that the linchpin for gun reform, and for progress on just about every other problem facing our country, is fundamentally changing the way Washington works by getting control of the money that is corrupting our politics and elections.
Decades of well-placed political spending, along with strong-arm lobbying and a relentless campaign to fan fears that the government wants to confiscate rifles from hunters, has made the NRA and the gun manufacturers who underwrite it an almost mythological force in the minds of too many of our elected officials.
There are plenty of politicians who've successfully defied the gun lobby. This year, the NRA invested $100,000 or more toward the defeat of seven candidates; only one, veteran Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, actually lost and the NRA-backed candidate who took Lugar out in a Republican primary, Richard Mourdock, was himself beaten in the November election.
But for hundreds of members of Congress and thousands of state legislators, the prospect of incurring the NRA's wrath, and the flood of money and attack ads that goes with it, is enough to block all but the most tepid attempts to limit the number and availability of guns or reduce their firepower. It's a measure of the NRA's clout that it takes a horror on the scale of Newtown to prompt otherwise sensible politicians -- my own Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia springs to mind -- to voice at least some willingness to consider gun reform.
Through Citizens United and other rulings, the Supreme Court has made it clear that weapons manufacturers and groups like the NRA are free to spend as much as they like or can afford on our elections. To break their power over the long term, we will need a Constitutional amendment permitting new, sensible controls on money in politics and/or a campaign finance system that lets candidates escape the influence of big money by relying on a mix of small donations from individuals and matching public funds.
In the short-run, Obama also can promote meaningful action against mass violence -- and the rest of his second term agenda -- by launching a personal campaign of what I'll call mass schmoozing.
The President is a gifted communicator, as his success in two campaigns for the presidency demonstrates, and he seems to have warm relationships with his family and a tight circle of personal friends.
As we've been reminded through recent discussions of the "fiscal cliff," however, Obama clearly does not relish the personal, one-on-one Congressional politicking practiced so effectively by Presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. If he wants his second term to be more productive than the first, the President must cultivate personal relationships with his political adversaries as well as his allies.
Because he's the President, Obama must be the one to take the initiative in these relationships. He need not become personally close to House Speaker John Boehner or Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, but he should be speaking to them, on the phone or in person at the White House, every week. To go for weeks without speaking, as Obama and Boehner did through much of the fall, is unacceptable.
Maybe more importantly, the President should be in regular, personal contact with rank-and-file senators and House members. His political allies will be far more inclined to go the extra mile to advance his initiatives if they have personal relationships with the President and at least some of his adversaries will be a bit less dismissive of his agenda if they've seen up close that he's a real person, not the socialist ideologue depicted by the Tea Party.