President Barack Obama and the National Rifle Association do agree on something: No amount of legislation can prevent every evil act. In his remarks on gun violence Wednesday, Obama acknowledged what gun enthusiasts have been saying for decades: Cracking down on illicit access to guns won't pre-empt all such future tragedies:
In the Dec. 14 Newtown, Conn., school massacre, 20 children and six adults died at the hands of a troubled 20-year-old armed with weapons his mother evidently had acquired legally: a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle and two handguns. The stark efficiency of semi-automatic weaponry allowed Adam Lanza to do maximum damage in a short period of time. Similarly, last summer, alleged gunman James Holmes within minutes managed to shoot 70 people inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
We took Obama's remarks not as a fixed and detailed agenda but as an attempt to formally start a national discussion that may diminish — if, unfortunately, never eliminate — the threat of such incidents. "Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater," Obama said while unveiling new White House-led initiatives to curb gun violence.
Some of what gun control advocates want, such as the outlawing of so-called assault weapons, will be divisive. But there are areas where we hope members of Congress quickly can find common ground: background checks for all buyers, including those at gun shows; harsher measures against illegal gun traffickers; better documentation of ownership transfers and stolen or lost weapons; and limits on high-capacity magazines.
Obama didn't say it out loud, but his message was clear: Tighter laws may limit the toll firearms take — and not only in mass shootings. Chicago suffered more than 500 homicides last year, the majority from gunfire; elimination of illegal gunrunning alone would have lowered that death toll.
Under Obama's suggestions, law-abiding citizens still could own semi-automatic weapons, but with less-expansive firepower. That doesn't trample their Second Amendment rights.
We strongly support Obama's call for federally mandated background checks on all gun purchasers. For far too long, dangerous gaps have existed among states: Some require strict background checks. Others don't.
Wednesday on this page, we documented a specific case of gunrunning between Indiana and Chicago that allowed a source working undercover for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to buy 43 guns illegally in barely 24 hours — without a single background check.
That's a big part of the reality on the ground — not only the random if inhumane mass killer, but big criminal enterprises that bring vast amounts of gunplay to city streets. Every responsible gun owner and NRA member should support a uniform system of screening buyers for each and every gun purchase. Congress: Close the loopholes, including those that let straw purchasers supply weapons to drug gangs. And find more effective ways to make the traffickers pay.
That said, this conversation must be broader than access to weapons. Obama rightfully spoke of the need for more intense mental health services nationwide. He said he would act immediately to clarify which services are covered under Medicaid. He emphasized that health care professionals are not prohibited from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement. And he said he would initiate a national dialogue on mental health.
That's important but not enough. We would like to see states ease the process of committing those suffering from mental illness to facilities or programs where they can get help — or at minimum easing the way for their friends or loved ones who want to intervene in their troubled lives. We realize it's a tricky constitutional area and a difficult fiscal environment; in Illinois, the Department of Human Services has experienced dramatic budget cuts during the past five years. Centers that offer mental health care often have frustratingly long waiting lists. But it's time for states to examine their services and reprioritize resources: Citizens who sense a problem should have somewhere to turn, and some assurance that the person who concerns them will get help.
The goal of this national conversation is simple: sensible efforts in multiple realms that, taken together, will reduce gun violence and pass constitutional muster. The status quo isn't working.
Action on the toughest questions — an assault weapons ban, limiting magazine capacity and federal background checks — will fall to the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate. Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage, although roughly a dozen of those Democrats come from states where gun control is especially unpopular. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and senators such as Dick Durbin of Illinois face a difficult task getting members of their own party, let alone Republicans, to support these ideas. As we've experienced repeatedly in the Illinois General Assembly, many Democrats representing rural districts cannot be persuaded to take a vote that could be considered anti-gun. On this issue, Illinois is America writ small.
We applaud the swiftness with which Obama and Biden delivered suggestions. Obama released a list of 23 actions he plans to take, and can take, without congressional authorization. He directed the attorney general to review categories of people prohibited from owning guns and propose changes. He called for a national campaign on safe gun ownership. His suggestions also include long-overdue steps to try to prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
Members of Congress, before you tackle the most divisive ideas, you have plenty of room for agreement. After decades of debate on weapons and mental health issues, after too many incidents of gun violence in Chicago and in victimized Newtowns across the land, you need to call the question.
Enough talk. Time to act.