The Missing Conversation on Guns

Reid Wilson

On Dec. 1, Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, took the life of his young girlfriend and killed himself at his team's stadium. Like other tragedies in recent years, in Tucson or Aurora or the Milwaukee suburbs, Belcher's crime has spurred calls for a national conversation on America's culture of guns and violence — a conversation that has not taken place.

This time, those calls started with Jason Whitlock, who writes for Fox Sports, and sportscaster Bob Costas, who cited Whitlock's column on NBC's Sunday Night Football telecast the next day. They did not come from President Obama.

The president is unlikely to devote political capital to any sort of serious push for new gun-control legislation. Though the National Rifle Association's power has waned from its peak, Republicans remain firmly on the NRA's side while Democrats remain deeply scarred by the gun-rights group's success in ousting pro-gun-control legislators.

With the stark exception of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who funded a super PAC this year that took on some pro-gun members of Congress, few make the case for gun control on the national stage. The White House has not been among them. And advocates have taken note.

"We have faith in things President Obama has been saying," says Dan Gross, who heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We're optimistic about what we have the potential to accomplish. We do think, in order for change to occur, there needs to be stronger leadership on this issue out of the White House."

Obama has been given several sad opportunities to address gun violence. In Tucson, he spoke of "a national conversation" commencing, "not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system." After an attack on a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee, Obama said similar events "are happening with too much regularity for us not to do some soul-searching to examine additional ways that we can reduce violence."

But those conversations, that soul-searching, did not happen in Obama's first term. And beyond Whitlock and Costas, there's little to suggest that any new introspection will come of the tragedy in Kansas City.

"President Obama has called for commonsense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens and improve public safety by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them under existing law," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said. "But the president has also been clear about the need to address the problem of violence not just in the wake of high-profile tragedies and not just in terms of gun laws or the role of government, but by working in a comprehensive way with local officials, schools, parents and communities."

There's a reality gap in the president's rhetoric. Better enforcing existing laws — say, against a felon purchasing a handgun — requires closing loopholes and establishing a better background check system. In other words, it will take new laws to get the old laws working.

Obama avoided gun control at virtually every turn during the 2008 campaign. On those rare occasions when he has had to confront the issue, Obama has said he supports an assault weapons ban and stricter enforcement of laws already on the books — but not before he takes pains to begin with a dependent clause reiterating his own fidelity to a broad reading of the Second Amendment.

"We're a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We've got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves," Obama said this year during a town-hall-style debate on Long Island, when asked what he had done to limit the availability of assault weapons. "[M]y belief is that, A, we have to enforce the laws we've already got, make sure that we're keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill. We've done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we've got more to do when it comes to enforcement."

When he talks about enforcing existing laws, Obama can point to his administration's record of forcing "more thorough and complete" background checks on anyone hoping to buy a gun, Lehrich said. And the administration can claim some success — violent crime has fallen every year Obama has been in the White House, according to FBI statistics.

Gun sales have spiked during Obama's first four years in office, prompted by fears that the president will take steps to restrict future purchases or, in the minds of conspiracy theorists, orchestrate some plot to rob Americans who still cling to their guns and religion. The ironic truth is that the administration hasn't done anything to justify those fears.

The calls for a conversation on America's gun culture begin anew with each tragedy splashed across front pages. But without a presidential initiative, the voices who take it up — Whitlock, Costas, Bloomberg — are quickly drowned out, left to sit on the sidelines until another horrific crime takes place.

And on Tuesday, a gunman opened fire in a mall in suburban Portland, killing two holiday shoppers.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column misidentified Jason Whitlock's publication. He writes for Fox Sports.