President Obama says gun control is now a “central issue” of his second term. He rightfully went beyond the 20 first-graders massacred in Newtown, Conn., and spoke about police officers, women, and children shot in everyday violence in America. He said it was a level of violence “we cannot accept as routine.”
But the response of many House Republicans was all too routine, indicating they will remain central figures against gun control. A spokesman for Alaska’s Don Young said the congressman “will not support an assault weapons ban.” Jim Jordan of Ohio said in a statement, “Passing more restrictions on law-abiding citizens will not deter this type of crime.” Louie Gohmert of Texas said he wished to God that the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown “had an M-4 in her office.”
Not even the murders of 20 children move these politicians. Other Republicans have stayed silent, perhaps waiting like puppets to hear Friday what the National Rifle Association claims will be “meaningful contributions” to prevent these tragedies. One insane contribution is already in from Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, who wrote in USA Today that school administrators should be armed and “blood is on the hands” of politicians who disagree.
So it will take much more from Obama than appointing Vice President Joe Biden to come up with gun-control proposals. It will take the strongest Oval Office leadership this side of war. In my mind, it is war when annual firearm deaths are 10 times more than the 3,000 Americans killed in 9/11, and nearly five times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
It will take Obama to find his inner John Howard. The former prime minister of Australia immediately pushed for gun control after a lone gunman armed with automatic weapons massacred 35 people in Port Arthur in 1996. In a written message to the nation he said, “Many law-abiding citizens may be affected by the government’s tough proposals. But I believe that unless we act now in the wake of the latest tragedy involving such a tragic loss of life the opportunity for effective uniform gun control laws will be lost. The ownership, possession, and use of firearms is a conditional privilege, not a right.”
In less than a month, Australia banned military-style assault rifles and shotguns. Pointedly, Howard proclaimed, “This country, through its governments, has decided not to go down the American path . . . We have done something that will send a signal to people all around this country that ours is not a gun culture.”
Australia also conducted a gun buyback program that slashed by nearly half the number of gun-owning households. A 2010 study done by researchers at the Australian National University and Wilfrid Laurier University found that firearm homicides dropped by 59 percent and firearm suicides dropped 65 percent between 1995 and 2006. Australia's homicide rate today is one quarter of that in the United States.
Every time there is a massacre in the United States, newspapers call Howard for comment. After the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, he said Australia “showed a national resolve” that the gun culture of the United States “would never become a negative in our country.” After this summer’s movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, Howard told the Sydney Daily Telegraph, “If I hadn’t done something, I would have been squandering the moral authority I had as a newly elected prime minister. There’s no point in having that much cash in the electoral bank without using it.”
The newly reelected Obama now is in Howard’s position, with plenty of electoral bank notes and moral authority, and with no more elections in his future. In a sense, Howard cheered Obama on, telling the Daily Telegraph that gun control “will be difficult but it can be done.’’ Obama must now take Howard’s path of leadership. If he stays on the old American path, he will squander not just this moment on gun control, but the moral authority for the rest of his presidency.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.