On Sunday night, speaking at a memorial service for the 26 victims of Adam Lanza's horrifying shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama provided a window onto the magical thinking of people who think such appalling crimes could be prevented if only we had the courage to pass the right law:
We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law—no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.
But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that—then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?
Finally, a president who has the guts to come out against the murder of children. Not only that, but he is prepared to confront those who, for murky but clearly frivolous reasons, tolerate violence, oppose tragedy prevention, and shrink from saving innocent lives. Because "politics" cannot be allowed to obstruct the solutions that every decent, right-thinking person favors.
Such as? Well, the president did not say. Neither did New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday, when he scolded Obama for not taking a firmer stand against the wanton slaughter of elementary school students. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this," the president had said, "regardless of the politics." Bloomberg was unimpressed:
Calling for "meaningful action" is not enough. We need immediate action. We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership—not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.
In Bloomberg's view, then, we need action that is not only meaningful but also immediate. Through leadership. By the White House as well as Congress. He reiterated that message on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday morning, when he got a little more specific:
We kill people in schools. We kill them in hospitals. We kill them in religious organizations. We kill them when they're young. We kill them when they're old. And we've just got to stop this....
What the president can do is number one: through executive action he can order his agencies to enforce the laws more aggressively. I think there's something like 77,000 people who have been accused of lying when they applied for a gun permit. We’ve only prosecuted 77 of them. The president can introduce legislation even if it doesn’t get passed. The president campaigned back in 2008 on a bill that would prohibit assault weapons. We’ve got to really question whether military-style weapons with big magazines belong on the streets of America in this day and age. Nobody questions the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, but I don't think the Founding Fathers had the idea that every man, woman, and child could carry an assault weapon. And I think the president through his leadership could get a bill like that through Congress. But at least he's got to try.
Since Lanza took the two handguns and the rifle that he had with him on Friday from his mother, who acquired them legally (and who was his first victim), the relevance of lies by gun permit applicants escapes me. Furthermore, the rifle, a .223-caliber Bushmaster M4 carbine, was not covered by the federal "assault weapon" ban (which expired in 2004) or by a similar law in Connecticut. Even if it were, plenty of guns equally lethal against schoolchildren (hundreds of millions, in fact) are widely available. That is hardly surprising, since the "assault weapon" category is arbitrary, based more on scary, military-style looks than features that make guns more deadly in the hands of criminals. Likewise, Lanza reportedly used "high-capacity magazines" (holding more than 10 rounds), but millions of these are already in circulation, and they can be readily fabricated no matter their legal status. (That's leaving aside the question of whether the need to swiitch magazines or weapons makes much of a difference in a murderous assault on defenseless people.) The notion that restrictions like these can have a noticeable impact, let alone that they can "end" or "stop" occasional outbursts of senseless violence, is hard to credit unless you believe what Obama insists he does not: that evil can be legislated out of the world by acts of Congress.