With the sun-drenched White House behind him, a prominent Baptist pastor spoke at a news conference that I attended in Lafayette Park yesterday. In a deep, no-nonsense voice, he delivered a stern message to President Obama: "Mr. President, we urge you to stop whining and begin acting."
If President Obama is as frustrated and angry as he appeared to be at his recent news conference about the inability of Congress to do something about gun violence in the wake of another mass shooting, Bishop Douglas Miles has similar feelings about the President's lack of leadership.
A longtime Baltimore pastor and civil rights leader, Bishop Miles is also a senior leader in the Industrial Areas Foundation's (IAF) national network of interfaith, interracial community organizations. For the last two years, Miles and other IAF leaders have been developing a new strategy that they believe can circumvent the stale, political deadlock on gun violence if the President will step up and put pressure on gun manufacturers. Since the U.S. government is a major purchaser of firearms, it ought to have clout with the gun sellers, IAF leaders believe.
The IAF strategy focuses on seven of the largest gun manufacturers such as Colt, Glock and Berreta. The IAF wants the gun manufacturers to do two things: to self-police the distribution and sale of their guns so they don't end up in the hands of irresponsible dealers and to develop new, safer "smart gun" technologies.
For years, a tiny percentage of federally licensed gun dealers has been responsible for a disproportionate percentage of guns used in crimes. This week in Milwaukee, for example, there is a trial in which two police officers who were gravely wounded are suing Badger Guns and its owner alleging he and his employees were negligent in selling the handgun used to shoot them. According to previous reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Badger Guns and Badger Outdoors were top sellers of crime guns recovered in Milwaukee for more than a decade. In 2005, Badger Outdoors was the top seller of crime guns in the nation with 537 such weapons recovered. Such data has not been released recently because of a secrecy measure passed by Congress."
The IAF has been joined by more than 75 mayors, police chiefs and other public officials throughout the country who have written to the gun manufacturers asking them to meet and discuss their distribution practices and their commitment to new gun safety or "smart-gun" technologies. Those technologies could prevent anybody except the gun owner or authorized user from firing a firearm. They would prevent childhood accidents and dry up the market for stolen guns, a major source for criminals.
But thus far, the gun manufacturers have not been willing to talk.
What about the Obama administration? After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre more than two years ago, President Obama said "I will use whatever power this office holds" to stop more gun tragedies. The IAF believes he has the power through Executive Orders to use the government's purchasing clout to force the gun manufacturers to put the bad actors in Milwaukee and elsewhere out of business if they don't change their business practices. The President could direct the Defense Department, the FBI and other agencies to begin purchasing firearms from gun manufacturers who agree to implement safe-gun distribution practices and new technologies.
Some months ago, the Obama administration seemed interested in pursuing these strategies, veteran IAF organizer Arnie Graf told me yesterday. Graf and his colleagues met with the chief of staff to Valerie Jarrett, President Obama's White House assistant and confidante. The meeting seemed to go well, Graf says. The next step was to meet with Jarrett. But that never happened. Instead, Graf says, he and IAF leaders were handed off to a variety of cordial but not helpful mid-level Administration staff.
After yesterday's news conference, I called my old boss and Obama friend, Abner Mikva, in Chicago. Before he was Chief Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and White House Counsel for Bill Clinton, Mikva was a Congressman and leading advocate for handgun control in the 1970s. "I'd be all for it," he said about the IAF's strategy to put federal government pressure on the gun manufacturers. And, he added, the IAF should "renew its request to meet with Valerie and the President himself. I think he really wants to do something on the gun violence issue."
If President Obama agrees to a meeting, he is likely to hear Bishop Miles repeat, respectfully but firmly, what he said yesterday in Lafayette Park about stemming gun violence: "Do not stand idly by, Mr. President, wringing your hands in frustration when you can use the power of your office and the purchasing power of this nation to take concrete action."