The gun control president

"They deserve a vote!" is a powerful argument, but will it be enough to shame the GOP into allowing one?

Published February 13, 2013 12:38PM (EST)

            (Reuters/Charles Dharapak)
(Reuters/Charles Dharapak)

In a way, it was fitting that the cable news networks were forced by the drama in Big Bear to blow up hours of long-planned pre-State of the Union coverage Tuesday night. Only a few minutes before President Obama entered the House chamber did the news channels finally cut away from California, where it was becoming clear that Christopher Dorner had died inside a burning cabin, and return to Capitol Hill. His demise was confirmed in the middle of Obama’s speech.

Dorner, of course, is the embittered ex-cop who has terrorized southern California for the past week, posting a manifesto and kill list on line and apparently shooting four people to death. The details of Dorner’s rampage are unclear, and it’s possible that none of the new gun regulations now being debated in Washington could have prevented his spree. But the deadly conclusion of yet another episode of deadly, high-profile gun violence couldn’t have set the stage better for the most powerful section of the president’s speech.

By design, it wasn’t until the end of his hour-long remarks that Obama got around to gun violence. His speeches tend to build toward emotional climaxes, and his most gripping material involved guns.

“It has been two months since Newtown,” he began. “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence.  But this time is different.”

His theme was simple: There are proposals now being formulated in Congress that enjoy broad popular support and the backing of law enforcement leaders: tightening of background checks, a crackdown of straw purchases, getting “weapons of war and massive ammunition cartridges off the streets.” Each of these ideas, the president said, deserves a simple up/down vote in Congress.

Then he raised the stakes by making it personal, invoking the story of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl who was gunned down just after traveling to D.C. to perform at Obama’s inauguration last month. “She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss,” he told the chamber, and her family deserves a vote, just like the more than two dozen families who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook.

“They deserve a vote,” Obama said. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” The applause was steadily building at this point. “The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote.” By the end, the chamber was roaring at the first full-throated embrace of gun control in a State of the Union address in two decades. Even Speaker John Boehner, who sat scowling behind the president throughout most of the speech, rose to applaud.

Obama is right. It is different this time. The history of successful gun control pushes in modern times is sparse. In the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations in 1968, LBJ managed to push through a ban on mail order sales of firearms. It was less than he’d been looking for, but at least it was something. A quarter-century after that, with violent crime spiking in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton managed to enact a five-day waiting period for gun purchases and an assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004). And that’s it.

Partly because the sharp decline in violent crime since the early ‘90s, the issue was off the table until very recently. Democrats’ conviction that their early ‘90s embrace of gun control cost them dearly in the 1994 and 2000 elections also silenced the gun debate for the last two decades. But the aftermath of Sandy Hook has played out differently than previous mass shootings. This time, political leaders – mostly Democrats but a handful of Republicans – have committed themselves to responding legislatively, a shift that has helped change the nature of the media’s post-Sandy Hook coverage and fed a popular appetite for concrete action in Washington.

Obama will not get his entire gun control wish list enacted this year. But there could be enough pressure to force Boehner and House Republicans to allow the up/down votes that Obama called for on Tuesday night. Presumably, the assault weapons ban and (probably) a limit on high-capacity magazines would go down; there’d be plenty of Democrats willing to help Republicans on these fronts. But bipartisan groups have formed in the Senate and the House to craft legislation dealing with background checks and straw purchases. It’s not at all out of the question that compromise bills in these areas will be enacted this year.

By themselves, these bills wouldn’t have a huge impact on gun violence, but their passage would validate Obama’s insistence that “this time is different” and prove that the NRA can be beaten. Of course, the passage of the Brady Bill and assault weapons ban back in 1993 and 1994 supposedly proved this too; if you go back and read a newspaper from May ’94, when the ban cleared the House, you’ll find any number of writers declaring the political death of the NRA. But then Democrats were crushed in the ’94 midterms, a backlash from pro-gun voters was cited as a major reason why, and Democrats began their two-decade retreat.

Which is why November 2014 is setting up as a crucial moment in the renewed battle for gun control. There may well be enough momentum for Obama to push through some new laws this year. They won’t be sufficient, but doing so will make gun control a major issue in the ’14 midterms. If those who support the news laws pay a price at the polls, the issue will again recede. But if they survive – and, especially, if those who vote against any of the laws Obama is calling for are defeated – it should create new momentum for further, more far-reaching reforms.

Obama made a passionate, convincing case on Tuesday night that his gun agenda deserves a vote in Congress. It may even be enough for him to get his way. But he won’t get everything he wants. For that, he and his allies are going to have to be patient and persistent. For real gun control, the fight won’t take months; it will take years.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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