Why Obama Can Only Hope for a Vote on Gun Control

The president's gun request in the State of the Union was memorable, but it was also just that — a very, very modest request for Congress to vote, amidst a wish list that otherwise called for an ambitious agenda. Why just a vote? Because the deeper conversation has changed.

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The only moving and memorable moment of President Obama's State of the Union speech was when he asked Congress at least to vote — only to vote — on new gun-control bills to honor victims of shootings like Gabby Giffords and the families of Newtown. It was a very, very modest request, given that the speech tends to function as a wish list. And the rest of Obama's wish list this year called for an ambitious agenda to be actually passed into law: raising the minimum wage to $9, universal pre-school, immigration reform, cap-and-trade, infrastructure spending. But on guns, all he asked of Congress was to say, on the record, what they think of universal background checks, of magazine limits, of trafficking restrictions, of "weapons of war":

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.  If you want to vote no, that’s your choice.  But these proposals deserve a vote…

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence.  They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

Why just a vote? The conventional wisdom on immigration reform is that Obama has to decide whether he "wants the issue" — all the better to beat up Republicans — or "wants the policy." This wisdom is not applied to gun control. Politico's Mike Allen, for instance, writes Wednesday, "PLAYBOOK SMART BOMB - WHAT CAN PASS ON GUNS: universal background checks; a tough trafficking law; maybe a limit on magazine size. Assault-weapons ban: No way."

Democrats will have to be happy to have "the issue" on gun control, because the reason we're talking about gun control has changed significantly since the 1990s. On Tuesday night, the National Rifle Association's president, David Keene, said gun control wouldn't have helped Hadiya Pendelton, the 15-year-old who performed at Obama's second inauguration and who was shot in Chicago last month. "[Obama] had with him the parents of a girl shot in Chicago," Keene said on CNN. "She was shot by a gangbanger who was out after having been arrested for a gun crime." Keene said Chicago had to enforce stricter gun-crime penalties because the federal government wasn't enforcing gun crime there.

Keene's use of the term "gangbanger" offers a little clue as to why an assault weapons ban passed in 1994 but has little chance now. In the early 90s, the gun-control debate was focused on crime committed by young criminals in cities, not by mentally unstable young men in the suburbs, as it is today. Crime rates were peaking in the early 1990s. Crime was a top priority then, and it's near the bottom now. (It didn't even make the list in Gallup's October 2012 poll of top issues, unless you count "ethical/moral/family values.") Newt Gingrich pushed the National Drug and Crime Emergency Act; he demanded the U.S. build emergency stockades on military bases, and declared "a new principle of serving full-time sentences should be constantly broadcast on all radio and television stations, including MTV and rap radio." The president of the NRA's New York affiliate told The New York Times on September 11, 1994:

"A group of youths boarded a train in Yonkers earlier this year and robbed it, Jesse James-style. And the reason they were able to do this successfully is because it's a fair bet people on a commuter train are responsible, honest citizens; they don't break the law. And therefore, if they're coming from New York City" -- where handgun owner ship is particularly restricted -- "chances are they're not carrying any weapon. So there you have a trainful of sitting ducks. This is like putting a sign saying, 'Take me, I'm yours.' If everybody in New York City who was a responsible, qualified citizen were permitted to properly protect themselves, they might not be such easy targets for muggers."

People didn't know crime rates would soon steadily drop for two decades. In fact, New York City's crime rate was dropping by 1994. The peak was in 1990, with 2.245 killings that year. In 2012, despite (actually partially because of) strict gun laws, there were 418 killings in a city of 8 million sitting ducks, the lowest level since 1963. In 1994, Sen. Dianne Feinstein got arch-conservative Henry Hyde to vote for her assault weapons ban. Why she probably won't get his counterpart in today's Senate to sign on? It might have something to do with the fact that there's less fear of cities for rural and suburban congressmen to exploit.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.