The State of the Union: A Chance to Make History on Guns

Since the tragic shooting in Tucson, President Obama has been a force for healing, recovery and reconciliation. As a nation, we were reeling. He steadied us. The President has been a profile in understanding and empathy.

He now needs to be a profile in courage.

In his State of the Union speech tomorrow night, he needs to talk about guns.

I can imagine the voices advising him to do nothing of the kind. They have been telling him to avoid the gun issue for two years. After Tucson, however, everything is different. Their arguments now ring especially hollow.

First, and perhaps foremost, is the political argument. Until the midterm elections, the guiding principle of the Administration's approach to guns was simple: Whatever we do, don't rile up the gun guys! The White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress marched in lockstep, embracing a strategy of appeasing the National Rifle Association to avoid giving the Republicans a lethal weapon to use against the Blue Dog Democrats. This strategy reached its height of absurdity when Congressional Democrats carved out a special exception from the proposed DISCLOSE Act campaign finance reform law for the NRA and the NRA only!

The Democrats gave it all to the NRA and received little in return. Remember the 65 Democratic House Members who wrote to Attorney General Holder in March, 2009 objecting to his comments supporting reinstatement of the 1994 restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips? Only 26 of them returned to the House. Of 50 key NRA-endorsed incumbent House Democrats, only 23 were reelected. As Professor Jeremy Mayer recently wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "the NRA's endorsement is about as useful to a Democrat as a duck decoy to a deer hunter."

I'm also sure some are telling the President that any political risk is simply not worth it, because stronger gun laws won't make much of a difference. As a general matter, this argument is insupportable, as shown, for example, by the success of the Brady Law in stopping over-the-counter purchases by almost 2 million prohibited gun buyers and contributing to a historic decline in gun crime. After Tucson, the argument becomes trivial and even callous.

The Tucson shooter was able to fire an astounding 32 rounds, killing 6 and wounding 13, in an elapsed time of about 15 seconds. Only when he had exhausted his high-capacity ammunition magazine holding 33 rounds was he forced to reload, enabling several heroic citizens to subdue him. His extended magazine was illegal for 10 years under the federal assault weapons ban, which limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, but expired in 2004 as yet another gift to the gun lobby.

No one has yet been able to deny that if the Tucson shooter had been forced to reload after 10 rounds, lives would have been saved and grievous injuries avoided. Just watch gun lobby stalwart Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), as he desperately tries to avoid answering Lawrence O'Donnell's simple question: "Don't you wish the Tucson shooter had only 10 rounds, instead of 33?" The Franks interview is any politician's nightmare.

As to those who would claim that a ban on high-capacity clips would have no effect on criminals, on Sunday the Washington Post reported its analysis of Virginia crime gun data showing that the number of guns with those clips seized from criminals by Virginia police declined sharply during the 10-year federal ban, only to start increasing again after the ban expired. To revise a favorite NRA slogan, "When high-capacity clips are outlawed, fewer outlaws will have high-capacity clips."

President Obama will no doubt hear that raising "divisive" issues like gun control is not what the nation needs. It is true that a Presidential appeal for stronger gun laws will be met with vociferous, and likely ugly, resistance from the NRA. The NRA's noisy and intimidating tactics, however, mask an important reality that political experts are just beginning to understand. There is a remarkable consensus among those who own guns and those who do not supporting sensible policies to regulate guns; the NRA's extremism is not typical of gun owners, nor even of its own members. After doing a survey of gun owners and NRA members, Republican pollster Frank Luntz concluded, "the culture war over the right to bear arms isn't much of a war after all." This is a chance for Obama to lead the middle against the extreme.

Prominent conservatives are coming forward in support of limiting the firepower of high-capacity ammo clips. As former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan put it in the Wall Street Journal, "What civilian needs a pistol with a magazine that loads 33 bullets and allows you to kill that many people without even stopping to reload? No one but people with bad intent." Noonan advised the President to "seize the moment" in his State of the Union address and "come out strong for a ban." Even former Vice President Cheney, who years ago was one of four Members of Congress to vote against a law banning plastic handguns that could evade metal detectors, has voiced his support for limiting high-capacity magazines.

Finally, President Obama will hear that any reform of our gun laws simply won't happen in this Congress. This is the futility argument, and it's self-fulfilling. If the President fails to exercise leadership because he thinks he cannot succeed, then he cannot succeed. For every major piece of progressive legislation enacted into law, there likely was a time when its prospects seemed doomed. But events change minds. Arguments change minds. Demonstrations of political courage, Mr. President, change minds.

As he looks out at the assembled 112th Congress, acknowledging their applause as he readies himself to begin his State of the Union address, one seat will be empty, hopefully not for long. Tomorrow night, the absence of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will weigh on every Member of the House and Senate and every American who is watching. It will be a moment that transcends politics and rhetoric.

It will be a moment to make history.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)