Confronted by a hostile Republican Congress, President Barack Obama has chosen to flex his political muscles on a range of pressing issues.
He increased the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors. He struck a climate deal with China. He’s protected as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
To all that, I say hallelujah.
But as he checks items off his to-do list, I hope Obama remembers the 20 children shot to pieces in Newtown, Connecticut two years ago this month.
In the wake of that national nightmare, the president vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another massacre like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary. Yet with around 300 million firearms in circulation in the United States — most of them handguns — odds are that another will happen. Maybe soon.
Now that his party has lost control of the Senate, Obama must act alone to deliver on his promise. This is a fight with congressional Republicans that’s worth picking.
What can he do?
First, forget about Congress.
Even when Republicans were in the minority, lawmakers couldn’t even pass relatively popular gun-control legislation. Consider that Senate Republicans — with the help of 15 spineless Democrats — defeated a measure to ban assault rifles just weeks after the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Had it passed, the ban wouldn’t have done much good in practice. It might have mitigated the most devastating mass shootings, but it wouldn’t have stopped the retail death-and-destruction of handguns.
The Senate also shut down a bipartisan bill to expand background checks that nearly two-thirds of Americans supported.
Second, stop talking about guns.
Ours is a gun culture animated by rugged individualism and vigilantism, dramatized by Hollywood and policed by the National Rifle Association. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said an NRA spokesman just days following the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Soon after, several state legislatures, mostly in the South and West, passed laws permitting guns in churches, businesses, and schools. Take a moment to ponder that: Politicians responded to the murder of 20 schoolchildren by clearing the way for more people to wield guns.
That tells you something: Gun-control arguments in a “gun context” lose before they begin.
Obama needs to change the context. This isn’t about guns, after all. It’s about public health and human lives cut short for no reason. He can do that by appointing a surgeon general who will make gun sense a priority.
Vivek Murthy is a doctor at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital with degrees from Harvard and Yale. He founded Doctors for America, researched AIDS in Africa, and had hoped, as Obama’s pick for surgeon general last year, to focus on obesity.
Senate Republicans, however, with assistance from a few Democrats, filibustered Murthy’s nomination. Why? Because Murthy threatens the NRA’s control of the gun debate. He believes that guns are a threat to public health and safety.
He’s right. Over 80 people die every day in gun-related deaths, according to one study. The annual total of gun deaths will likely surpass vehicular deaths sometime next year.
Remember, the NRA believes that gun ownership is inviolate, and the conservative Supreme Court has basically agreed. The debate in Congress is over for now — it was indeed over long before the Sandy Hook massacre — and no political will exists even for a mild piece of legislation, like an assault-weapons ban, that might do a little good.
Yet if we remove the debate from a gun context — if we approach our epidemic of gun violence from the point of view of a doctor serving the health and welfare of all Americans — well, that changes things. Or it could, if Murthy is given a chance.
By the way, those Democrats who helped block Murthy’s nomination? All but one is gone, retired or defeated by Republican challengers. So very little prevents Obama from putting Murthy to work with a recess appointment before the new Congress convenes in January.
He can do it alone, and he won’t have to worry about a few spineless Democrats getting in his way.
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