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The Deadly Presidential Silence on Gun Control: Breaking the NRA Death Grip on the National Debate

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The most striking and appalling aspect of the response to the Aurora, Colorado shootings has been the deadly silence from our two presidential candidates about guns and violence -- and ultimately gun control -- in America. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney clearly want to avoid the subject.

This is no surprise, of course. The National Rifle Association has a death grip on the national debate over guns, and by extension the larger subject of violence. Obama does not want to alienate conservative Democrats, certainly not in an election year, while Romney will not now question NRA orthodoxy.

Those Americans who would like an open debate on the subject, and a chance to develop reasonable and effective solutions to our gun violence problem, are in despair. Many feel the nation is at a political impasse.

History -- both recent and not so recent -- suggests a way out.

It was not too many years ago that the subject of same sex marriage was both unthinkable and even unmentionable in American politics. Yet, here we are today, with a sitting president endorsing same sex marriage, even though he is in the midst of a challenging reelection campaign. Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized same sex marriage, and candidates for public office across the country endorse it.

How did this happen? How did we travel so far and so quickly on a once unmentionable subject?

The answer is that a grass roots movement built a constituency that has made it possible, and in many cases almost mandatory for some candidates to endorse same sex marriage. And therein lies a model for changing the national gun debate. It is indeed futile today to expect presidential candidates to take the lead on this issue. The long term solution lies in building a grass roots movement that future candidates will have to respond to.

This scenario has other important parallels from the past.

On February 8, 1964, when the House of Representatives debated adding sex discrimination to Title VII of the Civil Rights bill, the subject was greeted with derision from many House members. As is well known, the sex amendment was introduced by a conservative southerner as a scheme to derail the entire Civil Rights bill. Many liberals opposed it for that reason, but many others were not ready for women's equality. The liberal chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Emanuel Celler, worried about the "traditional family," and cited potential "problems" related to child custody, alimony, and standards for the crime of rape. Since that day, of course, the women's rights movement has made enormous strides on these and other issues. Presidents did not take the lead in the early critical years, however, and (Democrats, at least) did not take up women's rights until they were faced with a strong political constituency by the 1970s.

On January 2, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency, and listed his agenda for getting America moving again. Civil rights was not on his list. And yet, events quickly made racial justice the central domestic policy issue in the country, forcing Kennedy as president to propose a federal civil rights bill in a nationally televised address on June 11, 1963. Those "events," as we know, involved demonstrations in the streets, countless speeches, articles and books, and tireless lobbying, and other actions in support of racial justice.

Much earlier, when the ACLU held its initial meeting on January 19, 1920, in the wake of the notorious Palmer Raids, many thought protection of freedom of speech to be a hopeless cause. And yet, the United States today has the broadest protection of speech of any nation in the world. This also occurred with little meaningful public support from our presidents. "Events" made it happen -- demonstrations, speeches, and litigation that eventually reshaped the law and public opinion.

We can break the grip of the NRA and open the national debate on guns by bypassing presidential politics and building a grass roots movement that presidents and candidates will necessarily be forced to respond do. Let that work begin.