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. Follow him on Twitter.

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.