In the face of a new spate of mass shootings, President Biden is unveiling a series of executive actions today aimed at stemming gun violence. The measures range from directing the Justice Department to propose new rules regulating "ghost guns" and pistol stabilizing braces to formulating model "red flag" legislation to help state authorities confiscate firearms from those considered a danger to themselves or others.
The president is also expected to propose expending additional federal resources on gun tracking and community violence intervention efforts. And he is nominating a well-regarded gun control advocate and former federal agent to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Although White House officials have said previously they want Congress to tighten gaps in the nation's background-check system, these steps are intended to show that the administration is not waiting for action on Capitol Hill. "Gun violence takes lives and leaves a lasting legacy of trauma in communities every single day in this country, even when it is not on the nightly news," the White House said in a statement.
Eight years ago today, Biden's former boss went to Connecticut to make a similar appeal.
On April 8, 2013, President Obama visited the University of Hartford, which is 50 miles northeast of the Connecticut town where an unspeakable horror had unfolded four months earlier at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"Newtown, we want you to know that we're here with you," Obama said that day. "We will not walk away from the promises we've made. We are as determined as ever to do what must be done."
Before speaking in the crowded college gymnasium, Obama met with parents of children slain at Sandy Hook and he wore a green bracelet in honor of the school's colors as he delivered the most impassioned call of his presidency for stricter gun laws.
"We've got to expect more from ourselves," Obama said. "And we've got to expect more from Congress. We've got to believe that, you know, well, every once in a while we set politics aside and we just do what's right."
The crowd was loud and enthusiastic in support of the president, and although the event may have been cathartic for some attendees, the tragedy he was referencing changed the politics of the issue very little.
The place names of these massacres, then as now, roll off our tongues like lists of Civil War killing fields. Instead of Shiloh, Antietam, and Cold Harbor, 21st Americans know of the slaughter of unsuspecting innocents at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay hotel; the Aurora cineplex and King Soopers in Colorado; Sutherland Springs, Fort Hood, and El Paso -- all in Texas; Virginia Tech; the Pulse nightclub in and Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. And so many more.
But our political battle lines are as entrenched as they were before Lincoln's presidency. We specialize today in talking past one another. Even if we didn't, addressing gun violence would still be a challenge. But what would it take to stem the carnage in this country?
Tighter gun controls? Absolutely, but much more as well. A serious nation would put every idea on the table. Not just the Second Amendment, but the First Amendment, too. I'm not talking about how the news media reports on crime -- that would have to be voluntary -- but what about the flood of violent video games and the thousands of simulated murders produced in Hollywood each year? What about the rights of the mentally ill -- was it prudent to close mental hospitals and put sick people either in prison or on the streets? And because no one chooses to be mentally ill, let's ask another question: Is a nation that cuts taxes and then spends trillions of (borrowed) dollars on economic relief during a pandemic -- while also bailing out states with structural spending problems -- doing enough to care for and treat the mentally ill. We know we aren't. And whose brilliant idea was it to gut prison rehabilitation programs?
In a functioning democracy, we would be discussing all of this, with the idea of keeping weapons of war out of the hands of madmen, yes, but also trying to mitigate underlying causes that lead not just to mass shootings, but also everyday street violence and broken lives: addiction, alienation, and mental distress. It's a big job. But as the man said in his inaugural address two-and-a-half months ago, Americans have never failed when we've acted together.
"Let us listen to one another," Joe Biden said then. "Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another." It was good advice. We could start on the subject of gun violence.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.