12/17/2012 09:11 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Guns, Gestures and Steel

The mass murder of 27 first-graders and adults in Newtown Connecticut could be a turning point in public sentiment and presidential leadership. Or it would be a moment for kind gestures and little durable change.

President Obama was eloquent last night and seemed to be setting the stage for a presidential commitment on behalf of more than gestures. "I'll use whatever power this office holds," he said, sounding like Lyndon Johnson to prevent "more tragedies like this one."

The shootings came at a moment when Obama, newly re-elected for a second term, was coming to appreciate how to use his presidency to rally public opinion and put his opponents on the defensive. He was discovering that some steel in the presidential spine, far from riling up Republicans, compels them to make concessions.

The politics of gun control are particularly hard, because the issue divides not just ideologically but culturally and geographically. There are literally dozens of states where to embrace even modest limits on guns is to commit political suicide. No pun intended.

In recent years, even most liberals have simply avoided the issue. After the mass killings at Virginia Tech, no prominent political leader used the mayhem to renew the call for effective gun control. Even after the mass murders of high school students at Columbine, Colorado, politicians were too intimidated to put gun control back on the agenda.

If anything, the issue was going the other way. Florida has just celebrated its millionth permit authorizing the concealed carrying of weapons. More and more states and localities are allowing people to carry guns into locations where they were previously prohibited. The bungled ATF effort to track cross border smuggling of guns, Operation Fast and Furious, put gun control newly on the defensive and further emboldened the right.

The Obama Justice Department, in an election year, shelved the most modest of initiatives to improve enforcement of existing laws. The noble Brady Campaign against gun violence is at its weakest since its inception. The Center For Disease Control's small office that treated gun violence as a public health problem was shut down more than a decade ago. There is no effective gun control lobby, and with the exception of rare figures like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, most liberal politicians are AWOL.

But maybe it's because these victims are first graders. Maybe because this is the week before Christmas. Maybe because Obama has lately discovered the steel in his spine and is liking it. The murders at Newtown are different, and they put the gun lobby and the yahoos on the defensive in a way that none of the other mass shootings quite did.

One leading indicator: The Sunday talk shows invited 21 leading Republicans to come on and defend gun freedoms. None came.

The NRA was also uncharacteristically silent.

In some respects, the NRA is a paper tiger. A majority of actual hunters and "sportsmen" (whatever that means) favor gun control laws. The NRA has succeeded brilliantly in connecting efforts to regulate military-style weapons and the claim that "they want to take away your guns." NRA opposition to a political candidate in much of rural America does real damage -- and causes even many Democrats to just avoid the issue.

But this is the moment to make the NRA politically radioactive. Taking their money should become a political badge of shame. It would also be a good moment for more investigative journalism on who really funds their lobbying and campaign donations. It's not "sportsmen."

After the Virginia Tech massacre, my friend Drew Westen proposed the following commercial, to be spoken by a rural Democratic elected official, such as a Jim Webb or a Jon Tester:

The speaker is holding an AK-47 in one hand and a hunting rifle in the other. He looks directly into the camera and says:

This is a hunting rifle. I've had one since I was a teenager. Every law-abiding American has a right to one of these.

This is an assault weapon. It's used to kill people. If you want to use one of those, you should volunteer and join the armed services. If you think it should be used on deer, you shouldn't have one.

Any questions?

Surely, the vast majority of American people agree. But there were no takers.

The right claims that gun control doesn't work. Even peace-loving Norway had a mass shooting spree. But gun laws vastly reduce the rate of gun killings.

In 1996, after a mass killing in Tasmania, Australia, the conservative prime minister sponsored a very simple law. Military style weapons would be prohibited and the government sponsored a buyback. Since then, the national firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent and the gun suicide rate by 65 percent.

The risk is that the moment will pass, life will move on, and the politics of gun control will be reduced to a politics of gestures. The president could punt by appointing a national commission on gun violence. The commission will labor for two years, and then report -- surprise -- that our gun control laws are far too lax; a minority report will insist that guns don't kill people, people kill people, and the momentum will have been lost.

Or the president and Congress could settle for closing some relatively modest loophole, such as the free pass for gun shows, leaving the larger problem untouched.

The society now can go in one of two directions. Either we will just accept periodic shooting sprees as one of those unfortunate things that must be lived with -- like, say, the periodic flooding and death that results from global climate change?

If we go that route, even our sweetest, safest elementary schools will be turned into fortresses. The remnants of our open society will be turned into a surveillance society. We will solve our unemployment problem by hiring millions more armed guards.

Alternatively, we can finally get serious about gun control. But the leadership has to come from the president. A law like Australia's would be a good place to begin.

Back in the Cold War era, there was a negotiating concept known as "linkage." If we were bargaining with the Soviets over, say, reducing the number of nuclear warheads, would progress on that issue be linked to an entirely extraneous one, such as, say, human rights in Poland or trade in Russian caviar?

In his first term, Obama had his own idea of linkage: If you appease the right on one issue, they might prove more conciliatory on another issue. And if you pushed too hard over here, they might pay you back over there.

That premise proved catastrophically wrong on all fronts. The more Obama tried to appease, the more Republicans were convinced he was a weakling across the board.

Today, Republicans are very much on the defensive on budget politics because public opinion is against them, and because Obama has maximized his advantage.

Some commentators have suggested that the president might not want to push too hard on the gun issue because budget negotiations have reached a delicate stage and he needs their cooperation. This has it exactly backwards. The right doesn't understand good will. They understand steely resolve.

This president has a gift for moving public sentiment. If ever there were a moment to use it, on behalf on murdered first graders and others who might be spared, that moment is now.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos