Is Obama Running Out of Time Against the NRA?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 11 2013 7:54 PM

The Battle Against the Clock

The window to do something meaningful in the wake of the Newtown massacre is shrinking. Will Obama act in time?

President Obama
President Obama

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The battle for gun control is a battle against the clock. After a tragedy like the massacre in Newtown, Conn., gun control advocates say lawmakers have about 30 days to channel public outrage toward enacting laws that might prevent another mass killing. After that, people get distracted, new challenges crop up, memories dim, and nothing gets done. Those who would like to stop gun control legislation know how this clock ticks, too. It is a battle between emotion and organization. How long can the emotion be sustained and how long can the NRA organization wait it out?

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This Sunday will mark 30 days since the Newtown, Conn., shooting. 

Gun control advocates say that the Newtown killings slowed this march of time. Whether it was because the victims were helpless kids, because it was near Christmas, or because this horrible event, after so many other horrible events, caused a tipping point, the window for action will stay open longer than 30 days this time. But how much longer?

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There is only one person who can really keep the window open: President Obama. After the shooting, the president who didn't talk much about gun control for four years, set a high bar for himself. He promised to use all the powers of the presidency to combat the root causes of gun violence. We're starting to see what that means in real terms, and the task, as administration officials and gun control advocates talk about it, puts the president ever more on the hook. The president is the only one with the public stage to maintain and shape public concern after the massacre. After his successful re-election, he also has the ready-made grass-roots organization to rally public sentiment. 

Immediately after the shooting, the president tasked Vice President Biden with leading an investigation into all the possible measures that could be taken to avoid another gun massacre. He has held regular meetings with victims of gun violence, gun control advocates, faith leaders, video-game makers and Hollywood movie representatives, and the NRA and other gun rights groups.

There are two avenues for change emerging out of the discussions held by Vice President Biden. One is a long list of potential legislative changes: laws to ban assault weapons, limit the size of high-capacity magazine clips, promote universal background checks, crack down on gun trafficking, improve mental health screening, and perhaps nudge Hollywood into tamping down some of the violence in video games and movies. That's the grinding, nose-counting process that will take place in Congress. The second, larger task, as administration officials describe it, is broader and more fuzzy. It requires changing the culture of guns in America and shifting the conversation from one of protecting gun rights enshrined in the Constitution to one of protecting children.

It is this second task for which the president is qualified above all others. Every day we see examples of how difficult it is to get anything done in Washington. But when Vice President Biden talks about this kind of cultural change, he talks about seatbelts as much as the 1994 assault weapons ban he helped author. Changing public attitudes about seat belts took more than legislation to make it the norm.

Listening to those involved in this effort there are echoes of the 2008 Obama campaign—they describe an energy and swell of sentiment that just needs a person to shape and guide it. Activists who have been fighting for gun control for years describe a new unexpected passion among progressive groups. After meeting with the vice president and his staffers, they express surprise (and delight) at how seriously the president and his team are pushing this effort. 

The reason the president is qualified for this larger task is that it doesn't require Congress. He can give speeches, use the bully pulpit, fire up his campaign organization, and generally engage all of his best tools. Of course he'll try to promote certain legislation once Congress comes up with an actual bill, but what administration officials are talking about goes beyond the immediate House and Senate wrangling of the coming months.

The first real test for the president will be the State of the Union address. The State of the Union is a dreary speech but it has a useful symbolic value. The president’s goal in this cause is not just to soften up the members of Congress or put them under mounting pressure to compromise. The president has a larger cultural message he can send through this year’s speech.

There are a few benchmarks to watch in order to gauge his seriousness. The first is how much he talks about the issue. Will he offer more than the 465 words that Bill Clinton delivered on gun violence in his final State of the Union address, given after the Columbine shootings? In 2005, George Bush devoted more than 1,000 words to Social Security reform, which he pushed in his first State of the Union address after winning re-election. Other things to look for are how many gun violence victims will Obama invite to sit in the balcony? Will he call on Congress to pass legislation by a certain date? Will he promise to embarrass those who don't step up? 

Once the president has kicked off his pitch in the State of the Union, the next test is whether he will travel the country speaking about gun control. White House officials say this is likely but it hasn't been decided. It’s also not the only issue he’s confronting. He’s got confirmation battles, endless budget fights, and an immigration reform push he’d like to start. George Bush embarked on a 60-day road-show to sell his Social Security plan. How much travel will the president devote to this cause that is arguably far more serious than Social Security reform?

One of the key messages, says a White House official, is to “drain the drama and fear” out of what the president is proposing. The message the president wants to send is that he’s not trying to trample on hunters and sportsmen. That’s a necessary precursor to any legislation because advocates for reform argue that the only way they will be able to build popular and political support is if they can split the NRA from its leadership. If the membership can be convinced that the president is not an ideologue trying to grab their guns, they will be less likely to believe the NRA leadership who paint him that way.

Of course, the Bush tour was a failure. When Obama, or any president, embraces a piece of legislation, the battle immediately becomes partisan. That's one of the reasons the White House resisted embracing the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission. Put Obama's name on it and it would sink. But the president has already wrapped himself up in several specific proposals for greater gun control and committed himself to the task. Plus, if aides are right, and this is a movement and not just about passing the lowest common denominator legislation next week, then that movement builds as the president winds his way across the country. 

During the campaign, when the president said that change doesn't come from Washington, he was criticized for sounding like he had given up. What he meant was that he can't change lawmakers who are stuck in their ways. The only useful change came when people were energized and mobilized. He has an organization that can do this—arguably one of the best in U.S. political history. Organizing for America, his campaign arm, will be enlisted in this new fight, but it's uncertain just how much it will be mobilized. Will a few emails go out or will volunteers walk the streets campaigning for changes in the law?

If the president does make a full push to enact gun control laws or change public sentiment, it will be another test of the bully pulpit and its limitations. When President Obama pushed his health care reform it became less popular. His efforts to pressure Republicans during his first term in a variety of budget fights did not work. Neither of those causes had a galvanizing moment behind it though. The president has also shown signs that he’s going to be a little more combative in his second term than he was in the first.

Vice President Biden reports to the president Tuesday on the findings of his inquiries, and after that, the president will back a set of specific recommendations. He won't offer legislation. Congress will have to come up with the language themselves. Based on conversations with administration officials and gun control activists, few think that an assault weapons ban is possible, though the president will push for one. A plan for stronger background checks is likely to have more support, as are laws that would crack down on gun trafficking. Whether the president can even build support for that depends on his will—and how long he can keep the time from running out.

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