Thursday, July 26, 2012

Obama speaks on firearms restrictions

President Obama finally stepped out of his Pastor-in-Chief role over the Aurora shooting, in a speech to the National Urban League in New Orleans on Wednesday (Remarks by the President at the National Urban League Convention 07/25/2012).

He actually talked the problem of violence at some length, and I'm quoting that whole section here:

Now, I've got to say that I recognize we are in political season. But the Urban League understands that your mission transcends politics. Good jobs, quality schools, affordable health care, affordable housing -- these are all the pillars upon which communities are built. And yet, we've been reminded recently that all this matters little if these young people can't walk the streets of their neighborhood safely; if we can't send our kids to school without worrying they might get shot; if they can't go to the movies without fear of violence lurking in the shadows. (Applause.)

Our hearts break for the victims of the massacre in Aurora. (Applause.) We pray for those who were lost and we pray for those who loved them. We pray for those who are recovering with courage and with hope. And we also pray for those who succumb to the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities in so many cities across the country every single day. (Applause.) We can't forget about that.

Every day -- in fact, every day and a half, the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater. For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans. For every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland. Violence plagues the biggest cities, but it also plagues the smallest towns. It claims the lives of Americans of different ages and different races, and it’s tied together by the fact that these young people had dreams and had futures that were cut tragically short.

And when there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there's always an outcry immediately after for action. And there's talk of new reforms, and there's talk of new legislation. And too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere.

But what I said in the wake of Tucson was we were going to stay on this, persistently. So we’ve been able to take some actions on our own, recognizing that it’s not always easy to get things through Congress these days. The background checks conducted on those looking to purchase firearms are now more thorough and more complete. Instead of just throwing more money at the problem of violence, the federal government is now in the trenches with communities and schools and law enforcement and faith-based institutions, with outstanding mayors like Mayor Nutter and Mayor Landrieu -- recognizing that we are stronger when we work together.

So in cities like New Orleans, we’re partnering with local officials to reduce crime, using best practices. And in places like Boston and Chicago, we’ve been able to help connect more young people to summer jobs so that they spend less time on the streets. In cities like Detroit and Salinas, we’re helping communities set up youth prevention and intervention programs that steer young people away from a life of gang violence, and towards the safety and promise of a classroom.

But even though we’ve taken these actions, they’re not enough. Other steps to reduce violence have been met with opposition in Congress. This has been true for some time -- particularly when it touches on the issues of guns. And I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. And we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation -– that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage.

But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- (applause) -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller; that a mentally unbalanced individual should not be able to get his hands on a gun so easily. (Applause.) These steps shouldn't be controversial. They should be common sense.

So I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties, and with religious groups and with civic organizations, to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction -- not just of gun violence, but violence at every level, on every step, looking at everything we can do to reduce violence and keep our children safe -– from improving mental health services for troubled youth -- (applause) -- to instituting more effective community policing strategies. We should leave no stone unturned, and recognize that we have no greater mission as a country than keeping our young people safe. (Applause.)

And as we do so, as we convene these conversations, let’s be clear: Even as we debate government’s role, we have to understand that when a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government alone can't fill. (Applause.) It’s up to us, as parents and as neighbors and as teachers and as mentors, to make sure our young people don’t have that void inside them.

It's up to us to spend more time with them, to pay more attention to them, to show them more love so that they learn to love themselves -- (applause) -- so that they learn to love one another, so that they grow up knowing what it is to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes and to view the world through somebody else’s eyes. It's up to us to provide the path toward a life worth living; toward a future that holds greater possibility than taking offense because somebody stepped on your sneakers. [my emphasis]
The full paragraph I bolded above was the position Obama took in the 2008 campaign. Then as now, it made sense as policy and was popular. The phrase "gun control" may poll poorly, but the items he mentions in that paragraph are polled-tested, safe positions. Democratic critics had complained that he wasn't using the opportunity to state positions like this, so this has to count as a win for them. Here's Cenk Uygur reporting on Obama's previous positions on gun and ammunition regulations, Obama Used To Be A Vocal Advocate Of Gun Control The Young Turks YouTube date 07/24/2012:

But I show that whole section of the speech above because it gives a good look at what is so disheartening about Obama for progressives. For one thing, Obama spent Friday through Tuesday as Pastor-in-Chief on the Aurora killings, the White House even saying that Obama would be concentrating on enforcing existing laws. Meanwhile, FOX News and Republican hate radio and the extremist gun lobbies have been saying since before Obama was inaugurated that Obama and the UN had a secret plan to confiscate everyone's huntin' rifles, and will keep saying it no matter what Obama proposes or does. For instance, LaPierre's [sic] scares Congress with gun control conspiracy theories that work The War Room (current TV) YouTube date 07/25/2012:

There's an argument to be made that the NRA's political clout is vastly over-rated among Democrats who use it as a reason not to advocate even very popular restrictions on automatic weapons and gun shows. But they're bitter opponents of Obama even though he hasn't pushed any kind of serious "gun control" legislation, and has clearly wanted to avoid even talking about it. Yet he's reluctant to use these issues to win votes of independents among whom they are popular and at the same time hasn't (so far as I can see) used the occasion of the Aurora mass gun murder to stigmatize the conspiracy theories that the Republicans and the gun lobby flog endlessly to use against him.

Better late than never, but it would certainly have given those positions a much higher profile if he had stated them this past weekend when the Aurora shooting was the biggest news story nationally and drawing a lot of intense attention. I suspect his desire to pose as the postpartisan conciliator made it an almost unavoidable temptation to him to take the Pastor-in-Chief route.

The part about the efforts his Administration has made working with local officials to reduce everyday violence in cities is also good. I wonder why he hasn't been using in his statements since last Friday when the Aurora shooting happened.

But, unfortunately typical for Obama, he pepper-sprays his own message, right in the same speech, by framing the issue in conservative terms. Most notably in saying, "I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms." That interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is actually an innovation of the Roberts Court during Obama's first run for the Presidency in 2008. As Adam Liptak reported for the New York Times in Justices Extend Firearm Rights in 5-to-4 Ruling 06/28/2010:

The Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual right to bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 5-to-4 decision.

The ruling came almost exactly two years after the court first ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns in District of Columbia v. Heller, another 5-to-4 decision. [my emphasis]
Antonin Scalia wrote the narrow majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), writing, "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." That despite the wording of the Amendment itself: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

It was a major act of conservative judicial activism, overturning a large body of judicial precedent saying that the 2nd Amendment applied only to state militias. Justice Stevens recounted some of that history in his dissent in the Heller case:

Whether [the 2nd Amendment] also protects the right to possess and use guns for nonmilitary purposes like hunting and personal self-defense is the question presented by this case. The text of the Amendment, its history, and our decision in United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174 (1939), provide a clear answer to that question.

The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia. It was a response to concerns raised during the ratification of the Constitution that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several States. Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.
Justice Breyer also dissented as follows:

The majority’s conclusion is wrong for two independent reasons. The first reason is that set forth by Justice Stevens—namely, that the Second Amendment protects militia-related, not self-defense-related, interests. These two interests are sometimes intertwined. To assure 18th-century citizens that they could keep arms for militia purposes would necessarily have allowed them to keep arms that they could have used for self-defense as well. But self-defense alone, detached from any militia-related objective, is not the Amendment’s concern.

The second independent reason is that the protection the Amendment provides is not absolute. The Amendment permits government to regulate the interests that it serves. Thus, irrespective of what those interests are—whether they do or do not include an independent interest in self-defense—the majority’s view cannot be correct unless it can show that the District's regulation is unreasonable or inappropriate in Second Amendment terms. This the majority cannot do.
Aziz Huq in Justice Scalia's Dueling Opinions American Prospect Online 06/30/2008 discussed at the time what a radical ruling that was.

Although it is the current controlling Supreme Court ruling, Obama's position, which he also expressed in his first Presidential campaign, backs the conservative NRA position and endorses one of the most blatant acts of conservative judicial activism we've seen.

I don't mind his several "we pray" references. That's an appropriate and conventional way for a President to convey his concern and to recognize that the victims and their families may take comfort from their religious faith after an event like the mass gun murder of last Friday.

And with the phrase, "Instead of just throwing more money at the problem of violence," Obama was repeating a long-standing favorite piece of conservative framing. The Democratic President needs to be making the case for positive government that can accomplish important and constructive things, and in part he is doing that in his campaign. So why pepper-spray that message with a hack conservative phrase about "throwing more money at the problem"?

And, inevitably, we get, "I’m going to continue to work with members of both parties." But which Republicans in Congress are willing to work with him on new laws to accomplish the goals he at least suggested he holds in that bolded paragraph, restricting the sale of automatic weapons and better background checks?

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