The horrific tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut, and the immediate emotional reaction of President Barack Obama seem to have become a part of a routine when these events occur. From the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in January 2011, to the tragedy in Aurora in July 2012, to the Wisconsin Sikh Temple ,and now Sandy Hook Elementary School, it all begins with breaking news, followed by words of sympathy, a visit of consolation by the president, funeral services, and yes, talk about gun violence and how we must address the issue. Yet, nothing is really done to curb growing gun violence.
When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he spoke about renewing the ban on assault weapons without preventing legitimate access to firearms, as accorded by the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, once in office, and with the strong gun lobby spearheaded by the NRA, Obama has been missing in action. The Newtown tragedy is about to force Obama’s hand. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has once again called for action by both the president and Congress.
The media coverage and the depth of this December 14 tragedy has renewed the pressure on politicians to do more than offer words of consolation and tears. This senseless tragedy is not easy to address as it involves so many factors – mental illness, access to guns, and a culture of violence that permeates the lives of Americans. As Canadians, however, we should not be smug and overly judgmental about our neighbours to the south. Sure, the statistics in the U.S. are devastating, but gun violence has no boundaries. This being said, the tipping point may have finally arrived for both President Obama and Congress to summon the courage to act and begin a process that, while it may not eliminate gun violence, will reduce the probability of more mass murders.
Speaking on Meet The Press, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would introduce legislation to eliminate loopholes in existing federal legislation, increase background checks, and, possibly, limit civilian access to weapons meant for the battlefield. No one expects an assault on the Second Amendment of the Constitution, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for restrictions. Just as we have restrictions on our driving behavior, and in our consumption of alcohol, it is feasible that some be placed on the exercise of the right to bear arms.
President Obama must not lead from behind on this one. This could be “his Katrina moment,” akin to when former president George W. Bush failed to show leadership during this terrible natural disaster in 2005, and saw his presidency become largely irrelevant in his second term. Obama’s failure to act now could result in a premature lame-duck status.
Obama can act through executive action and supporting new legislation. He could even set up a bipartisan commission to start the wider conversation about how to prevent such tragedies in the future. This conversation needs to address issues including mental illness, the culture of violence and institutional support for people with mental illness.
Granted, Obama has much on his plate — the fiscal cliff, immigration reform and Middle East issues, including Gaza, Syria, and Iran. But the president is not just the consoler-in-chief. He is the commander-in-chief and, in his final term, he has greater flexibility. Just as he has the ultimate responsibility to keep Americans safe from an external menace, he must be as vigilant about internal threats.
Twenty children lost their lives on December 14, 2014. The new year should begin with a president who is ready to provide leadership on reducing gun violence.