Some of the responsibility in steering the conversation toward the prevalence of guns in this country rests with President Obama. In his August 2008 nomination speech, then-Sen. Obama deftly addressed the complexity of the gun debate, saying, “The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gun violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me that we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.” He campaigned with a pledge to reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. It’s unclear where the administration stands on the issue.
Shortly after the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the president wrote an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star noting that his administration has expanded certain gun rights — for instance, allowing people to carry weapons in national parks and wildlife refuges. Activists at groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are carefully holding their breath. Dan Gross, the group’s president, says of President Obama: “He has called for a national conversation on the gun issue, but his voice hasn’t been heard.”
Part of the president’s calculus hinges on a reluctance to irritate certain segments of the electorate, particularly in swing states like New Mexico and Nevada, where skepticism about government intrusion is deep. There’s understandable fear of a backlash from the influential gun-rights lobby.
Nevertheless, here’s what Obama could do: Pledge not to sign bills like Begich’s, should it ever pass Congress. He could explicitly call for new legislation requiring background checks on all recorded gun sales. “Having the president approach it like that,” Gross says, “could make an immense difference in helping to make this a safer nation.”
The president alone can’t break our love affair with guns. But it’s hardly unreasonable to expect him to play a more muscular role in shaping the debate. Ultimately, we bear the responsibility for keeping our streets safe for children like Trayvon Martin.