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Obama has altered the gun discussion

Published January 20. 2013 4:00AM

A week ago we wrote in expectation of what gun reforms President Obama would propose after receiving the task force report from Vice President Biden. To his credit, the president did not disappoint. In the wake of the massacre at the Newtown Elementary School, where a mentally ill gunman used a semiautomatic assault rifle outfitted with a large capacity bullet magazine to murder 20 children and six educators, President Obama has successfully altered the discussion about firearms.

This in and of itself was no easy achievement. Elected leaders have long seen as politically too dangerous proposing federal policies that would control the distribution of guns in this country and ban military-style weapons capable of rapid killing. The powerful gun advocacy group, the National Rifle Association, pads the campaign coffers of many a politician. Republicans who would dare consider any restrictions on access to guns invite primary challenges, while Democrats in rural districts well know that Republican opponents stand ready to exploit any hint of softness on Second Amendment issues. And if any politician should forget their vulnerability, the NRA will be happy to remind them.

But having won a second term, and sensing that public disgust and outrage over what happened here in Connecticut has changed the political dynamics, President Obama uncharacteristically eschewed caution and moved quickly to push gun reform.

The president will almost certainly not obtain all the objectives he outlined last Wednesday, at least not in the short term. The NRA is too powerful and the gun culture so ingrained in American traditions that major change will not come quickly. But some reform can happen and, over the longer haul, perhaps significant reform.

Congressional approval of President Obama's proposal to expand and improve background checks before an individual can obtain a firearm appears obtainable. Surveys show a majority of the public supporting thorough and universal background checks to try to prevent unstable individuals and former criminals from getting access to weapons. The NRA, after all, often refers to protecting the right of "law-abiding citizens" to own guns.

Yet the NRA has in the past stood in the way of closing massive loopholes in the current background check policies. About 40 percent of gun sales, done by private sellers and often at gun shows, now require no background checks. Anyone seeking to purchase a gun should have to undergo a meticulous background check using comprehensive federal and state databases and improved access to mental health records.

Congress may also be ready to approve a ban on the possession or transfer of armor-piercing bullets. Why should anyone but soldiers in combat possess those?

Consensus may be obtainable, as well, on the president's proposal to more aggressively crackdown on and severely punish those who use their successful background checks to obtain and transfer weapons.

Finally, we can see no reason Senate Republicans can justify continuing to block confirmation of a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Until 2006 the president had the authority to install a director, but under pressure from the NRA, Congress changed the law to require Senate approval. And because of NRA distrust of the ATF, the Senate has approved no nominee since, with five acting directors since that time. The ATF, critical to enforcing gun regulations, is in need of a permanent leader.

As sensible as they are, President Obama's call to renew and tighten the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons that expired in 2004, and his request to prohibit the sale of magazines that allow the firing of more than 10 bullets without reloading, are unlikely to win approval, or even get to a vote.

But if that is the outcome, so be it. At least now we have a debate. And the next time such a weapon outfitted with a 30- or 100-round magazine is used to mow down innocents, and we all know it will happen, the demand for change will grow louder.

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