Loose Canons

The Politics of Gun Control

Or how the Republicans have become the New York Jets of political Washington.

By 12.24.12

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The Newtown, Connecticut massacre of children has changed the gun control debate to an extent no other event has in decades. One of the reasons it has had such an effect is that it came at the time when liberals are at the height of their power and conservatives -- and Republicans -- are at their lowest ebb. It also came at a time when the maneuvers between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama over solving the “fiscal cliff” crisis fell apart, leaving Boehner severely weakened.

The Newtown children hadn’t even been buried before the usual gun control liberals were demanding another “assault weapons” ban. California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein hit the Sunday shows two days after the massacre advancing a new version of the ban she’d authored in 1994. Chuckie Schumer, Nanny Bloomberg, and the rest were up in verbal arms, demanding that DiFi’s approach -- or something more restrictive -- be adopted forthwith. Nancy Pelosi wanted the House to pass immediately a ban on magazines holding more than ten rounds.

And with Republicans on the ropes, President Obama was hitting hard. Obama quite evidently wants us to go over the fiscal cliff, and has maneuvered around Boehner in the manner of Muhammad Ali: he’s floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Obama tasked Vice President Biden to head up a new gun violence task force, which -- as Obama said in the announcement -- would be reporting its demand for an “assault weapons” ban among other things, such as more funding for mental health programs.

But Biden’s task force isn’t going to study gun violence. Obama announced what he wanted in the report and demanded it be delivered in January. His timing is another political master stroke: Obama is bringing the gun “crisis” to a head at the same time that the financial crisis will impose higher taxes across every sector of the economy and the government will -- just like it did in 2011 -- hit the ceiling on federal debt.

By engineering the gun debate so that it will come to fever pitch at the same time as the economic mess, Obama is counting on the strategy that has worked for him before. If you have enough tumult and if the media are in full cry in support of your agenda, your opponents will be demonized and rendered powerless to stop what you want to do.

Here we have three “crises” -- all of which deserve cautious Constitutional solutions -- that will be “solved” only by liberal proposals when Obama invokes his tried and true "we can't wait" tactic. By saying we can't wait for tax hikes or a debt ceiling increase or gun control -- all at the same time -- Obama will be able to get a series of legislation that, in the immortal words of then-Speaker Pelosi, we’ll have to have Congress pass so we can then find out what’s in them.

The Republicans -- the New York Jets of politics -- are in such disarray that they'll probably get beaten on all three issues.

What the Republicans should do -- and, of course, aren't doing -- is to form their own gun violence task force. With five or six members drawn from the House and an equal number from the Senate, they could come up with an anti-violence agenda that would actually deal with the problem. How about some stringent measures aimed at getting the states to take the dangerous mentally ill off the streets? How about -- as I wrote last week -- passing some equally-stringent measures to get the states to strengthen school defenses without turning the 100,000 K-12 schools in America into armed camps?

A Republican task force could survey “assault weapon” bans. They should start with Connecticut’s, which didn’t ban the “Bushmaster” rifle Adam Lanza used to kill the children in the Newtown massacre. That law focuses on the cosmetic appearance of the weapon, not its capability. DiFi wants to ban “assault weapons” but -- by her description of the bill she intends to introduce -- her “ban” would exempt at least 900 kinds of weapons.

Feinstein’s approach proves that gun control is a substitute for dealing with the real problem, which is the dangerous mentally ill. Unless and until the states act to ensure that these people -- and according to the forensic psychiatrists I’ve spoken to it’s usually the high school age males -- are identified and taken off the streets, no gun control law will prevent more massacres like the Newtown event.

The Republican counter-proposals should be crafted in the same time that Obama’s will be. And if there's no Republican gun violence agenda, there will only be Obama's to debate. It's a political cliché, but nevertheless true: you can't beat something with nothing. Right now, that's what the Republicans have.

The NRA didn't provide anything helpful in its Friday presser. Saying, as NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre did, that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun -- which, in the moment of the shooting, is exactly right - still forfeits the essential elements of any solution and, thus, the debate. We need measures, the ones I described in last week’s column, that will take the dangerous mentally ill off the streets and make it harder for any shooter to get into a school and harm the kids when he does.

Liberals want the “assault weapons” ban because they favor any measure that will take guns out of the hands of Americans. They will say that no one needs an “assault weapon,” which is probably true. Unless you live in a place where you can’t leave your house without facing gun violence, you don’t need a magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle. But you may want one. Thousands of hunters use magazine-fed semi-automatic rifles such as the Browning BAR. If you miss on your first shot or wound the deer or bear you’re hunting and need a quick follow-up shot, something like the BAR is what you need. But this isn’t a question of need. It’s a question of freedom.

If we are going to take effective action against events like the Newtown massacre, it’s not our freedoms that should be limited. We’ve protected the dangerous mentally ill so well that it’s extremely difficult under most states’ laws, to take them off the streets. And even where -- as in Connecticut -- the laws provide the means to do so, those laws are not used effectively. Their freedoms are trumping our right to safe schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls.

Republicans should be hammering the issues that really underlie the problem of protecting people from mass murders. Liberals want to spend money on everything that increases government power. But they don’t want to spend the money to do what’s needed to protect school children. We’re already hearing that we can’t afford to put a cop in every school.

Why can’t we? Hardening the targets that are our schools -- giving the teachers the training and the non-lethal means to protect the children until the cops arrive -- will be very expensive. Over the next three months, while Obama manages the three “crises” of tax rates, the debt ceiling, and gun control, we’ll be told that the “assault weapons” ban will cost us nothing and that the states can’t afford to do the other things we need to protect school kids.

States can’t afford to not act. Their budgets are being blown by Medicaid and other federal mandatory spending that could and should be reduced or eliminated. If the federal government legislated the savings that cut wasteful federal programs -- such as Sen. Tom Coburn details in his “back in black” proposal -- we could save $9 trillion in government waste. That would pay for what states need to protect schools hundreds or thousands of times over.

Over the next three months, congressional Republicans will be fighting losing battles on gun control, taxation and the federal debt ceiling. They needn’t lose, but they will as long as they follow Boehner’s lead. New leaders need to take charge now, and take us off the path Obama is mapping.

Obama is right on one thing: we can’t wait. But that for which we can’t wait is for conservative leadership out of the mess that Obama and Boehner have made. Gun control, like the fiscal cliff Obama created with the help of congressional Republicans, isn’t a solution to our nation’s biggest problems.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.