Two observations about President Barack Obama's announcement Tuesday that he would bypass Congress and use executive action to strengthen background checks on gun buyers:
— Two decades' worth of polling suggest that at least 70 percent, and possibly up to 92 percent, of Americans agree with him that better background checks are needed.
— The announcement will almost certainly result in more guns being sold, most of them to the one in three households where the nation's 300 million guns are already present. The gun lobby has found that any moves toward stricter gun control, even moves as innocuous as those announced by the president Tuesday, can drive panic sales. The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups can be expected to use the president's announcement to drive fundraising, enabling them to further invest in pro-gun politicians who don't represent their constituents' views on background checks.
Obama's actions are largely symbolic, but the symbolism is important. The nation's hands have long been tied by gun absolutists, a small minority of the population. In October, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 92 percent of all Americans, and 87 percent of Republicans, favor background checks on all gun buyers. Most gun owners don't belong to the NRA and most of them, surveys have found, support background checks on all gun-buyers.
But Republicans in Congress, and some Democrats, are in hock to the NRA and gun manufacturers. The slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 wasn't enough to change their minds, nor any of the dozens of other mass shootings that have become a terrible fact of American life.
"The gun lobby may hold Congress hostage," Obama said, "but they can't hold America hostage."
Obama acknowledged that the actions he announced won't stop those tragedies. There are too many ways, legal and illegal alike, for someone to obtain unimaginably powerful weapons. But by more strictly defining who is a "gun dealer," and applying the federal background check law to more people; perhaps a few homicides and suicides can be prevented. More dealers who operate on the Internet's gray gun market may be regulated, as well as those who regularly peddle weapons at gun shows. More federal agents will be able to work to enforce existing laws. More money will be invested in mental health treatment, and records will be part of background checks. And ways will be found to resume federal research into gun violence.
It would be nice to think that the president's executive actions could embarrass Congress into recognizing its unconscionable failures to abide by the public will. It would be nice to think that voters would be galvanized to elect people who support sane gun laws. But that's not the way our broken political system works.
Obama, as evidenced by the numb anger he expresses after every mass shooting, is horrified by this situation. His actions Tuesday speak to desperation to do something, anything, about this American horror. In no way does this threaten anyone's Second Amendment rights. It says only that the right to bear arms carries with it some measure of responsibility. As the president said, "It's part of the price of living in a civilized society."
REPRINTED FROM THE ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH