Given the level of the political divide in this country, it seems many people automatically cease rational thought when they hear a politician from a party opposite their own. The first thought is to look for counter-arguments, not to listen and consider.
That is unfortunate, and it seems especially true when the subject is guns.
President Barack Obama outlined a number of proposals and executive orders this week aimed at trying to curb the types of gun violence that have plagued the nation, most recently in Connecticut, Colorado and Wisconsin. Some of these, such as an outright ban on certain military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, stand little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House and would be of dubious effectiveness anyway. Americans must confront the legitimate argument that such laws target law-abiding gun owners and would not have much impact on serious criminals or those who, for whatever reason, intend to commit mass murder.
But some of his other ideas deserve serious consideration. For example, why shouldn't all gun purchases be subject to a background check? The argument that this would create some sort of government database used to confiscate weapons is of dubious merit. All sides ought to agree that firearms should not be in the hands of people who are unstable or have criminal records. How else could inadvertent sales to such people be curbed?
Granted, laws alone cannot stop undocumented private sales, but a more inclusive system of background checks would keep law-abiding people from unwittingly selling to the wrong people. The president also would like to provide stiff penalties for those who act as fronts, purchasing weapons on behalf of someone who wouldn't pass a background check.
Obama also proposed earmarking funds to better train police, first-responders and school officials on confronting situations involving armed attackers. This seems like a good common-sense approach to helping people in authority protect innocent lives. So does another of his proposals to provide $30 million in grants to help schools develop emergency plans. These grants would be administered by states, not Washington.
He also wants funding to expand a system that tracks violent deaths, in order to provide better data on the problem. Reliable information is key when confronting any problem, and especially one as complex as this. Better data would shed light on the connection between violence and mental health, among other things.
Unfortunately, the president is not without blame when it comes to adding heat to the rhetoric that divides Americans on this subject. He has at times belittled his opponents, and he has made too much noise over his use of executive powers.
When examined closely, the 23 executive orders he issued are probably less consequential than either side claims. They involve getting federal agencies to share more data, providing gun dealers with guidance on how to conduct background checks and directing the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research, among other things.
The use of executive orders may be well within his rights. However, in this case it can inflame already high passions. It could get in the way of meaningful negotiations on other issues.
Likewise, however, gun owners and their advocates need to tone down their rhetoric and look seriously at what has been proposed.
Washington cannot eliminate criminal intent or insanity, but it can do things to better protect people from criminals and the criminally insane.
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