I was sitting at a table with a friend a few summers ago when he leaned forward and said to me in a whisper: "See that guy over there? He cut off his wife's head with a sword."
Then, prompted by me, he went down the rows of tables around us, one by one, and told me about each murder these guys had committed.
It was visiting day on death row. There were about 20 guys out of their cells, visiting friends or family, all wearing orange jumpsuits, including my friend — who had been convicted of a drug-induced murder years ago.
One of the most striking things I noticed on my first visit was that — in this room with almost two dozen convicted murderers — the guards had no firearms. Why? Well, I suspect that time and experience taught them that there are situations in which a gun puts everyone in greater danger.
This is, after all, the core argument for gun control. There are circumstances in which guns make everyone less safe, and there are circumstances in which certain types of guns make everyone a lot less safe. Adam Lanza's mother's guns proved deadly to their owner, their handler and 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook School.
When President Barack Obama makes his State of the Union address later this month, he will present to Congress his proposals for new gun control legislation. Taking on this divisive topic amid all the other polarizing matters at a politically hostile time is going to provide a tough test of the president's political skills.
Seated with first lady Michelle Obama in the gallery will certainly be parents and teachers from Sandy Hook School who lost sons and daughters and colleagues. The president will tell the most moving stories of tragedy and heroism — of children seeing their classmates killed, of teachers sacrificing their lives to try to stop the murder.
The whole assembly will be in tears or fighting them.
If the viewers at home could vote for a gun ban by remote device at that moment, the bill would pass in a landslide. The challenge of gun control advocates is to maintain, as much as they can, the climate the president creates during the State of the Union address as he talks about Sandy Hook.
The first element in the plan should be the continued presence of the parents and teachers of Sandy Hook. It's one of the noblest qualities of human beings that people who have suffered tragedy often find solace in trying to spare the same pain for others. The members of Families of September 11, which formed after the tragedy of 9/11, helped one another with their grief but also put political pressure on Congress to pass the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The Sandy Hook families can do the same.
The second element is the argument. It has to be clear, succinct and rational. There are many gun control groups in the country, many independent advocates and many more citizens and lawmakers who have their own views. The president's presentation needs to unify those disparate arguments and proposals. His message needs to be so clear that everyone can repeat it and so compelling that everyone will buy it. Ideally, the gun control proposals (independent of other possible measures, including in mental health) could be summarized in no more than three points. For example:
1) Close the gun show loophole on background checks.
2) Limit high-capacity ammunition magazines.
3) Ban the manufacture of semi-automatic assault weapons for civilians.
The president's justification should be just as clear: Weapons are for self-defense or sport or hunting. The ability to fire 20 or 30 rounds without reloading has no role in any of those uses — unless you're hunting human beings.
The third element is tone. It needs to be cool and reasonable, not hateful. Extremists feed on hot rhetoric. The gun control advocates should not demonize the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre or the leadership of other gun organizations. They should appeal directly to their more reasonable members. Pitch the message to them and force the LaPierres of the world to try to make the reasonable sound irrational.
LaPierre did his best on the Friday after the Sandy Hook massacre to confuse the issue; he wanted to talk about armed police officers in every school, school security plans and violent video games. He wanted to talk about everything — anything — but limiting the sales of the kinds of weapons used in the slaughter at Sandy Hook.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said in his most quoted line. That distinction between good guys and bad guys is a brilliant distraction that leaps past the crucial point: Guns that can fire 30 rounds without reloading make everyone less safe, and they should be banned.
If the message is clear, succinct, reasonable, focused, relentless — and backed by the families who suffered tragedy at Sandy Hook — the president can win this one.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.