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opinion | derrick z. jackson

Start the conversation on guns

Mourners embraced at the memorial built across the street from the theater where the Colorado shootings took place.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Mourners embraced at the memorial built across the street from the theater where the Colorado shootings took place.

After the 2011 Tucson massacre that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, President Obama called for a “common sense” discussion “to prevent future bloodshed.” Can we have that discussion now, in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., massacre at a movie theater that has taken 12 more lives and left 58 more people wounded?

Conventional wisdom in most of the news coverage and reaction from politicians would indicate not. But the national conversation needs to start, and it needs to be led by the presidential candidates. This may be difficult because Obama now allows guns in national parks, and presidential challenger Mitt Romney has fled from his Massachusetts record on gun control. But once upon a time, they could have been political allies on this issue.

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When Romney ran against Edward M. Kennedy for the US Senate in 1994, he supported a federal assault weapon ban as well as the Brady bill, which requires a waiting period for gun purchasers. Romney said then, “semi-automatic weapons should not be on our streets.” He further declared, “I don’t line up with the NRA (National Rifle Association).”

In a 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial debate, Romney pledged not to “chip away” at the state’s gun laws. As governor, he signed the law making the assault weapons ban permanent in Massachusetts, to protect the state against the eventual expiration of the federal ban. “These guns are not made for recreation or self defense,” Romney said. “They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.”

During Obama’s early career, he forcefully denounced assault weapons. As Illinois state senator, he said, “It’s hard to find a rationale as to why anyone would want an AK-47 or need more than 12 handguns in a year.” When he ran for the US Senate in 2004, he said, “I have been willing to stand up to the gun lobby in Springfield and would continue to do so in Washington.”

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After a 2008 rampage at Northern Illinois University where a gunman killed five people, wounded 21 others, then killed himself, Obama said that the nation has to “do whatever it takes to eradicate this violence from our streets, from our schools, from our neighborhoods and our cities.” Obama said. “That is our duty as Americans.”

Obama and Romney should do their duty to spark a discussion. So, too, should Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren. Warren has been silent about guns in the wake of Aurora, though on paper she supports a federal assault weapons ban. Brown says he remains in favor of Massachusetts’ assault weapon ban but does not support a reinstatement of the federal ban.

Once upon a time, Obama and Romney could have been political allies on this issue.

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A national discussion could start with assault weapons and limits on ammunition purchases. The alleged shooter at the new Batman movie in Aurora purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. This week, a man was arrested in Maine with several guns in his car, including an AK-47, and police later found more weapons and 8,000 to 10,000 rounds of ammo. He said he had taken a loaded gun into a Batman movie.

Two days before the Aurora tragedy, I talked with Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence. Gross is trying to get citizens and politicians to sign a statement that guns should at least be kept out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and terrorists. He said he tried to present the statement in April to House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia during a remembrance of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Cantor did not sign the document. But at the time, he issued a statement saying, “We all agree that violent convicted felons, terrorists, and the dangerously mentally ill should not have access to weapons.” That comes from one of the top recipients of NRA money in this election cycle, according to the National Journal. These shards of conscience give hope for common ground, if someone just has the courage to start the conversation.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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