President Barack Obama has wisely chosen to ignore bipartisan bleating over the lawful use of his executive authority to address pressing issues long championed by the so-called professional left. He has instead decided to flex his muscle, at long last.
He struck a deal with China to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 percent over the coming years, pushed for regulating the Internet as a public utility, raised the minimum wage of workers employed by companies with federal contracts, created gender equity rules for such employees and protected from deportation as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. Also, his Environmental Protection Agency is set to enforce new ozone standards generally, as well as new carbon limits specifically for 600 coal-fire electricity plants.
To all that, I say hallelujah.
But I hope Obama, as he checks off items on his progressive to-do list, remembers the 20 children shot to pieces in Newtown, Connecticut, by a deranged young man wielding his dead mother’s semi-automatic rifle. In the wake of that national nightmare, the president vowed to do everything in his power to prevent another massacre of the kind visited upon Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. With 300 million firearms in circulation in the U.S.—most of which are handguns—odds are that another one will happen. And soon.
Now that his party has lost control of the Senate, as well as numerous seats in the House of Representatives, Obama is free to act alone and deliver on his promise. More generally, he has the chance to pick a fight with congressional Republicans that’s worth fighting, and he can do it without worrying about his own party getting in the way.
What can he do?
First, forget about the Congress. Come January 3, Republicans will be in charge. But even when they were in the minority, gun legislation usually failed. Consider that Senate Republicans defeated a ban on assault rifles just weeks after Sandy Hook, with the help of 15 spineless Democrats. Even if that law had miraculously gotten through the Republican-controlled House, it would have faced certain doom, as the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court believes guns are a God-given right immune to government restriction.
And even if the high court had somehow upheld the assault-rifle ban, it wouldn’t have done much good in practice. It might have mitigated the most devastating of mass shootings, but it wouldn’t have stopped the retail death-and-destruction of handguns.
Second, stop talking about guns. Ours is a gun culture animated by rugged individualism, dramatized by Hollywood and policed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Days after Sandy Hook, an NRA spokesman said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Afterward, state Legislatures, most in the South and West, passed laws permitting guns in churches, businesses and schools.
Take a moment to ponder that. More guns was the response to 20 murdered 6-year-old schoolchildren. That tells you something. It tells you that gun-control arguments in a gun context lose before they begin.
Obama needs to change the context. He can do that by appointing a surgeon general.
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 hoped, as Obama’s pick for surgeon general, to focus on obesity.
Senate Republicans filibustered his nomination last spring, with assistance from five Southern and Western Democrats, because Murthy threatens the NRA’s control of the gun debate. And he threatens the NRA’s control of the gun debate because he believes guns are not an issue of constitutional liberty or natural law but an issue of public health and safety.
He is right. Eighty people die every day in gun-related deaths, according to one study. The annual total of deaths will surpass vehicular deaths sometime next year.
Remember, the NRA believes the Second Amendment is inviolate, and the Supreme Court has agreed. The debate is over for now—it was indeed over long before the Sandy Hook massacre—and no more room exists even for a mild piece of legislation, like an assault-weapons ban, that might have done a little good but that mostly makes gun-control liberals feel better about themselves.
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 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 spineless Democrats getting in his way.
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