For Obama, gun control is more than just a feel-good gesture

President Obama holds his hand to his ear during a visit to the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Conn., Monday, April 8, 2013. Obama visited the school to highlight gun control legislation and to meet with the families of victims from the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

By Walter Shapiro

For Barack Obama, like any second-term president, the most valuable political commodity is time. Every day brings Obama closer to that chilling moment of semi-irrelevance when Americans are more fixated on the 2016 elections than on the man finishing out his eight-year lease on the Oval Office.

That’s why it’s telling that Obama is flying to Connecticut on Monday afternoon for his second out-of-town gun control event in a week. This represents a level of presidential commitment that Obama has rarely displayed about other issues on the liberal wish list, like global warming. Nearly four months after the Sandy Hook shootings, it suggests that the death of 20 small children continues to sear Obama’s soul.

The presidential visit to Hartford serves as a prelude to a week when the Senate will begin debating gun legislation under the threat of a conservative GOP filibuster. But for the first time in weeks, there are glimmers of hope that the National Rifle Association (NRA) may be on the defensive in the Senate.

Pennsylvania conservative Republican Pat Toomey has been working with pro-gun West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin on compromise language mandating an expansion of background checks for gun buyers. And on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, John McCain announced that he would oppose a filibuster to prevent the Senate from voting on gun bills, depriving the Republicans of a key vote. 

In Denver last week—not far from the site of the Aurora movie theater massacre— Obama placed his greatest emphasis on expanding existing federal background checks to cover gun shows and other private sales. The president’s argument: “The loopholes that currently exist in the law have allowed way too many criminals and folks who shouldn’t be getting guns—it has allowed them to avoid background checks entirely.”

In five national polls conducted over the past month, between 87 percent and 91 percent of all voters supported enhanced background checks. These are the kinds of lopsided polling numbers you only get when the questions are about the cuteness of kittens or the fecklessness of Congress.

All too often what is missing from the high-decibel gun debate is something called evidence. This is the inevitable consequence of the NRA treating the most innocuous legislative proposals as akin to a jack-booted governmental coup, and gun-control advocates relying on tear-stained arguments invoking Virginia Tech, Gabby Giffords and Newtown.

The question almost never asked is a simple one: How many lives would be saved each year from expanded background checks covering virtually all gun buyers?

The awkward reality is that no one on either side of the debate has an answer. What we do know is that about 9,000 Americans, according to FBI data, were killed with firearms in 2010. We also know that more than 98 percent of would-be gun buyers who undergo current federal background checks are approved. About 160,000 people (mostly felons and those convicted of domestic abuse) are turned down annually when they try to purchase firearms.

But how do we make sense of these numbers?

The current federal background checks are mandated by the 1994 Brady Bill, which does not cover private sales or transactions at gun shows. In 2000, academic researchers Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook conducted a statistical evaluation of the early years of the legislation that concluded, “Our analyses provide no evidence that implementation of the Brady Act was associated with a reduction in homicide rates.”

But that does not necessarily mean that the drive to expand the background check legislation is futile. It seems likely that felons (who are responsible for roughly 40 percent of all gun-related homicides) primarily depend on currently unregulated private sales to obtain firearms. As Cook, who is a professor of economics and sociology at Duke University, told me in an interview, “The stakes are so high that even if we reduced gun violence by just 1 percent, it would more than pay for the inconvenience of the background check legislation.”

Even if it is mostly a symbolic gesture, there still may be lasting political value to passing a gun-control bill in the wake of the Newtown shootings. There’s a parallel to Lyndon B. Johnson steering the mostly toothless 1957 Civil Rights bill through the Senate.

As LBJ biographer Robert Caro tells it in “Master of the Senate,” no civil rights bill had made its way through the Senate in 82 years because of the power of filibusters by segregationist Southern senators. To maneuver the 1957 bill to passage, Johnson had to deliberately eviscerate many of its key provisions to the consternation of liberals. As much as Caro admires 1950s civil rights supporters, he also had to concede, “They couldn’t see more than a few moves down the Senate chessboard and they weren’t very good at counting votes.”

Caro argues that the lasting importance of the 1957 civil rights bill is that it proved that the Southern segregationists could be out-maneuvered and beaten. Without this initial hollow legislative victory, the epic civil rights triumphs of the mid-1960s (voting rights and public accommodations) would have been far more difficult or even impossible.

The NRA’s clout in Congress rests primarily on its exaggerated reputation for invulnerability rather than on anything more tangible. During the 2012 political campaigns, the NRA spent $25 million on TV ads and $3 million more on lobbying. While these may sound like impressive numbers, in reality they amount to little more than chump change in a $6 billion campaign year.

The implicit logic on Capitol Hill is that the gun lobby can’t be beaten because it hasn’t been beaten. No major gun legislation has made its way through Congress since former President Bill Clinton’s first term.

With an estimated 300 million firearms in private hands, universal background checks for new gun purchases are far from a panacea. Obama is gambling that investing time and effort in the cause is more than just a feel-good gesture. For if the NRA cannot be beaten on this limited front—even after the horrors at Sandy Hook Elementary School—then we will never limit gun violence.