Emotion matters in politics, and President Obama drew on an ample well of it in the service of his proposals to curb gun violence. Seated in first lady Michelle Obama’s box were powerful symbols of the nation’s ongoing struggle with guns. There was a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 first graders and six teachers were gunned down, a police officer who took a dozen bullets when he was first on the scene to confront a shooter at a Sikh temple, and the parents of a Chicago teenager gunned down in a park just a mile from Obama’s house—days after she performed in his inaugural parade.
The teen’s name was Hadiya Pendleton, and Obama recalled how the 15-year-old girl loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette and on her way to a bright future when her life was cut tragically short, one of the “more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries … stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun” in the two months since Newtown. Urging Congress “to come together to protect our most precious resource—our children,” Obama said he knows this is not the first time the country has debated how to reduce gun violence. “But this time is different,” he said.
Noting that overwhelming majorities of Americans, including strong supporters of the Second Amendment, support “common-sense reforms” like background checks to make it harder for criminals to get guns, he commended senators of both parties for working together on tough new laws to prevent gun trafficking. And he said police chiefs, “tired of being outgunned,” are asking for help to get “weapons of war and massive-ammunition magazines off our streets.”
Well aware that Congress’s inclination is to bottle up legislation and avoid tough votes, Obama declared in an emotional peroration that Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, along with more than two dozen other Americans in the House chamber Tuesday evening “whose lives have been torn apart by violence; they deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg … they deserve a simple vote.”
The days ahead will determine whether Obama got the balance right in pushing his progressive agenda while acknowledging the need to compromise with Republicans on deficit reduction and immigration reform. On guns, though, Obama gets high marks. “It was the emotional high point of the evening, and the emotional high point of any speech he’s given before Congress,” says Jim Kessler, a longtime gun-safety advocate with the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “He asked for something very reasonable, which is a vote. How can you refuse that? And what was really special about it, he enlisted the victims to put a human face on this. But they weren’t props; it was very real. “
Obama didn’t press too hard for an assault-weapons ban, avoiding the phrase and referring to “weapons of war and massive-ammunition magazines.” While banning large-sized clips may still be within reach, an outright ban on the weapons themselves is seen as unlikely to pass the Senate and has zero chance in the House. Background checks, on the other hand, are popular with the public, and would also do the most to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. “This is the trophy, this is the gold medal in this fight,” says Kessler.
In the Senate, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin are working with Republican Tom Coburn, an alliance that could be the dealmaker if it holds. Manchin and Coburn are both A-rated members of the NRA, and if the Democrats can get Coburn to endorse legislation expanding background checks, that could smooth the way for passage. “In the old days, it would be like getting Jesse Helms on a bill with Ted Kennedy,” says Kessler.
Obama touched on gun trafficking in his speech, and it is likely to gain more attention in the coming days. The gun that killed Hadiya Pendleton came from Mississippi via one of many established gun-trafficking routes from Mississippi to cities like Chicago and New York. The issue is being highlighted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and there is legislation emerging in both the Senate and House on the Democratic side.
Dan Gross is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that got its start in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, which left press secretary James Brady grievously wounded. Sitting in the House chamber Tuesday evening, Gross told The Daily Beast, “It was almost surreal to see this issue engender the most rousing applause of the evening. It was the words of a president who knows the American public is behind him. All he asked for is a vote, which is the kind of accountability too many people have been dodging on this issue.”
You would think in a democracy that a vote would be the easiest thing to get. Not so, it turns out, but in this Congress, pushed by a president and by a public that’s had enough tragedy, it may be time.