Some politicians lead. Others follow.
When Elizabeth Warren came to the Globe for a Senate-campaign endorsement interview in the fall, we asked her to cite an area where she’d break with her party. Warren promptly responded that she’d fight much more aggressively for a federal ban on assault weapons.
Truth be told, we were looking for an area where she’d take a more conservative stand, not a more liberal one. Still, Warren’s reply was instructive. That was well before last week’s slaughter in Connecticut, well before other Democrats were showing any real resolve on the issue.
Throughout the long campaign, Senator Scott Brown insisted an assault weapons ban was best left to the states. This week, with the national mood clearly changing, he reversed his stand and came out in favor of a national ban.
Now, it’s good to see that Brown has adopted a more sensible position. But as the recently defeated senator eyes a run for the Senate seat about to be vacated by John Kerry, this too is true: A politician can’t really be called a gutsy leader if he changes his position only after several appalling tragedies, and as he positions himself for another campaign.
As for Warren, she says national action on gun control is not just due, it’s overdue.
“We have abdicated our responsibility,” she told me this week. “We can’t prevent every gun death, but we can change the risks that our children face.” Nor does she have much patience with objections that this or that gun control measure wouldn’t have prevented this or that mass shooting. She’s confident that significantly tougher national laws will have an effect.
For Warren, that doesn’t just mean an assault weapons ban. It also means ending the gun-show loophole that in many states lets buyers at gun shows avoid background checks. And it means addressing the so-called “terror gap,” a legal laxity that allows even some of those on the FBI’s terrorist watch list to buy firearms.
How does Brown feel on those issues? His office didn’t respond to my queries. But in the past, Brown, the beneficiary of about $60,000 in NRA spending in his first US Senate campaign, hasn’t supported efforts to close the gun-show loophole and has generally been a reliable ally of the pro-gun groups.
In sum, if you believe meaningful gun control is needed, it’s safe to say you can count on Warren to pursue that cause energetically. As for Brown, I think it’s safe to say that he’d reluctantly follow a strong gun-control consensus, should one emerge. But there’s little reason to think he’d be a leader on the issue.
Inclination matters here, because we don’t know exactly what the Obama administration will recommend or what measures will have a chance of passing Congress. But we do know two things.
First, the pro-gun forces will strive to make whatever legislation does emerge as narrow as possible. In the past, they’ve fought to limit the reasons gun sales can be denied, to restrict the discretion of law enforcement officials in gun-control issues, to block federal research on gun violence, and to hobble agencies involved with gun laws. They have also insisted that any required background checks should be almost instantaneous, which obviously limits their possible scope.
Second, stronger gun-control laws matter. We’ve seen that in Canada, we’ve seen that in Australia, and we see that in this country: 7 of the 10 states with the toughest gun laws also make the top 10 for the lowest rates of gun deaths.
Massachusetts, with some of the most comprehensive gun laws, is one of them: In 2009, we had the lowest per capita rate of gun deaths in the country.
Among other things, under our process, prospective gun buyers must first apply for a gun license. The application requires two references and a background check by local police departments. That check, which can take a few weeks, annoys the gun groups. But think about how much less likely louche, criminally minded, or mentally ill figures would be to get guns if they first had to submit character references and undergo a background check by law enforcement.
It would take real leadership to pass a similar system nationally. But if there ever were a time to make the case for what works, it’s now.