Obama Joins the Gun Fight

Is it real this time? President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he will support a range of legislative and executive actions on gun safety will be dismissed as just one more tilt at the gun lobby windmill, bound to end in political failure for Obama, and personal tragedy for countless Americans.

But the White House agenda, and the presidential commitment behind it, is a genuine milestone on the long, twisted road toward sensible U.S. gun laws. This time the cynics are wrong.

Will the White House achieve everything it wants? Surely not. But in acknowledging the “complicated challenge” he has embraced, Obama also recognizes that the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre has created space for a meaningful discussion on gun laws.

We realize the House of Representatives has been hostile terrain for initiatives linked to the president, and that Republican opposition to gun safety measures will probably be intense. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ point man in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, has courted the gun lobby in the past and appears at best ambivalent about the president’s plans.

Nevertheless, there is enough substance in the president’s agenda -- and enough nascent public support for its particulars -- to make a difference. Congress is a vital arena in the fight for gun safety; it is not the only one.

Although most of the focus will be on Obama’s proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with his call for universal background checks, we believe the president’s willingness to take executive action is also vital. Not all 23 items on his list may prove productive. But some will. Especially promising are initiatives to promote gun safety technology, to improve gun tracing and data collection for the federal background check system, and to promote gun violence research under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of efficient records maintenance and scholarly research on gun violence. As we have written before, the gun lobby has successfully constrained the collection of such information in order to inhibit public debate. The lobby has reason to be wary of research, much of which suggests that guns are far more dangerous to law-abiding owners than many realize. As Obama said in his remarks today, “We don’t benefit from ignorance.”

Likewise, the current haphazard approach to records -- from the background checks that are never done to mental health records that go missing -- ensures maximum chaos while placing minimal limits on gun purchases. It is an excellent system to promote gun sales, a very poor one if the aim is to protect life.

“This will not happen unless the American people demand it,” Obama said of his push for gun safety. He’s right, of course. But rallying the people to a cause that is both moral and pragmatic is the president’s job. He has accepted the challenge. He knows it will not be easy. He also knows it must be tried.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.