President Obama keeps his Newtown pledge

Shortly after the horrific massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at a Connecticut elementary school last month, we called on our elected leaders in Washington to engage in a serious national debate over what can be done – if anything – to curb such senseless atrocities in America.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has held up his end of the bargain. Now it is time for Congress to live up to theirs.

On Wednesday, the president unveiled a comprehensive $500 million package of legislative proposals – coupled with nearly two-dozen executive actions – aimed at reducing gun violence in the nation.

Chief among them are a renewal of the federal ban on
military-style assault weapons that expired in 2004; a ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition; and an expansion of criminal background checks to all gun buyers, including gun shows and private sales. Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks on their prospective customers.

Of course, enacting these changes into federal law won’t happen without a knock-down-drag-out fight with the National Rifle Association and its many supporters in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

If there were any doubts about that, they were quickly put to rest early Wednesday when the NRA posted a scathing online ad that made reference to the president’s two daughters. The ad – which the White House rightfully termed “repugnant” – calls Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for not backing the NRA’s call for armed guards at all schools when his two daughters receive Secret Service protection.

Poor taste aside, the real challenge facing the White House is the NRA’s historical grip on members of Congress. Since 1990, the NRA-led gun rights lobby has contributed roughly $29.2 million to candidates for the White House and Congress – nearly $9 of every $10 to Republicans.

Given opinion polls have shown declining support for tighter gun restrictions during the past two decades, one would think the president’s far-ranging recommendations would have no chance of passage this year.

But some recent post-Newtown polls on specific policy ideas suggest there is broad public support for at least some of them.

According to a poll of 1,500 adults conducted Jan. 9-13 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press:

• 85 percent favor background checks for private and gun show sales.

• 80 percent support preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns.

• 67 percent back the creation of a federal database to track gun sales.

• And by narrower margins, 55 percent support the president’s call for a ban on assault-style weapons and 54 percent favor a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

No doubt opponents will be quick to argue that none of these proposals – collectively or individually – will “solve” the nation’s problem of gun violence. And they will be correct. The president acknowledged as much in his midday address.

But that doesn’t excuse members of Congress from giving serious consideration to any idea – be it the president’s or their own – that could lead to fewer gun deaths in America.

They owe 20 dead schoolchildren, six heroic staff members and their grieving families at least that much.