WASHINGTON — President Obama says we will change our approach to gun violence — some other day.
Near the site of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., Obama said on Sunday night that he will take action “in the coming weeks” to prevent future carnage — a sentiment White House press secretary Jay Carney echoed no fewer than 16 times in his Monday afternoon briefing. Will Obama push for more gun-control laws? “I would simply point you to what the president said last night about moving forward in coming weeks,” the spokesman said. Will he join the effort to reinstate the assault-weapons ban? “You’ll hear from him, I think, as he said last night, in the coming weeks, to speak more specifically about what he thinks we can do.”
Will he perhaps make it a focus of his second inaugural address?
“I don’t have any more details to give you about how or when the president will address this issue in coming weeks,” Carney said, “except to cite what he said yesterday about doing so in coming weeks.” There’s only one problem with the “coming weeks” approach to gun control: The weeks almost never come. It’s nice to be deliberative and thoughtful, and it’s particularly difficult to act quickly now, a week before Christmas and with the “fiscal cliff” talks consuming the political world. But in the case of gun control, a pattern has become persistent: A tragedy sparks an outcry for common-sense gun laws and gun groups are set back on their heels, but by the time Congress gets around to taking action, the National Rifle Association has regained its legislative stranglehold. Now the window has opened again — at the unthinkable price of 20 young children and seven adults dead. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a pro-gun Democrat, said Monday on MSNBC that he’s open to tougher laws. “Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered,” he said. Another pro-NRA Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, agreed that “the status quo isn’t acceptable.” And gun-rights lawmakers are on the defensive; David Gregory reported that all 31 pro-gun senators declined to appear on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. But the NRA’s allies will soon regain their courage — which is why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was correct to say that “immediate national action” is what will work, including eliminating loopholes in background checks for those who buy guns, reinstating the assault-weapons ban and banning high-capacity magazines.
Privately, Democrats are trying to calibrate how forceful to be; the issue has been a political loser for them. Yet even Harry Reid, the pro-gun Senate majority leader, is recognizing that some considerations may be more important than politics. On the Senate floor Monday, he offered a slightly more urgent twist on Obama’s phrase, calling for action “in the coming days and weeks.”
But the White House seems determined to slow-walk the gun issue until it returns to obscurity, as seen in Obama’s call for ideas from his Cabinet rather than an immediate legislative push. On Friday, the day of the shootings, Carney said, “Today’s not that day” for a gun-control debate — a reasonable position, given the raw tragedy. Three days later, “that day” still hadn’t come. On Monday afternoon, Carney again appealed for patience, pointing out, correctly, that “no single piece of legislation” will solve the problem. But he had difficulty articulating why Obama wasn’t pushing ahead with changes that are obviously necessary. Does the president see some urgency to take action in the short term? “I would simply refer you to his remarks last night when he talked about the action he hoped to take to engage the American people in the coming weeks,” Carney said.
Asked for some specific actions Obama might take, he said: “I don’t have a series of proposals to present to you. Again, the president spoke yesterday about moving forward in the coming weeks.” The longer Obama waits, won’t people be more likely to return to their hardened views on guns? Carney predicted that “in a few weeks or a few months,” the pain from Newtown will “still be incredibly intense.”
What about Bloomberg’s demand for immediate action? “He didn’t, you know, talk about months or years,” Carney replied. “He said coming weeks.”
ABC News’ Jake Tapper pressed the spokesman for one action Obama had taken to advance his call for removing “weapons of war” — military-type guns — from American streets. “He will in coming weeks use the power of his office to try to help make that change,” Carney said. But if you believe the current national mood will be the same in the coming weeks, you’ve got another thing coming.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays.