In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, every politician who has me on their email list has been filling my inbox. All of the messages begin with the requisite expression of shock and horror, the business of sending out our hearts and prayers to those who mourn. Then the gun control advocates insist that now is the time for congressional action, and the opponents caution that no legislation is going to stop people (not guns) from killing.
As the days pass, as it becomes clear that one proposal or another would not necessarily have stopped Newtown (he didn't, after all, buy the gun at a gun show; it wasn't a flawed background check that allowed him to purchase it at a gun store), the danger is that what happened after the horrible movie shootings in Aurora, Colo., and after the tragic shooting of Gabby Giffords (and the murder of those unlucky enough to be outside the market with her) will happen here: paralysis.
President Barack Obama has a unique advantage that he didn't have two months ago or two years ago. Yes, he needs to convince the Republican Congress to pass other important measures. But there are steps he can take without congressional action, like using government funds to improve databases that do not include information about mental instability. There are former opponents of gun control legislation, such as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who are ready to lead a fight for tighter controls. And the president, in his second term, needs to worry about getting measures through Congress and not getting re-elected. It makes a difference.
We are never going to ban law-abiding, stable, and well-trained citizens from owning guns. I have never understood why that is not enough for gun advocates.
But why assault weapons? Who needs an assault weapon for self-defense? Police officials are almost uniformly against private ownership of such weapons. If we can't get all the weapons on the street, why not regulate the sale of ammunition? People who have a right to own guns have nothing to fear from fulsome background checks. If you can't get a license to drive a car without proof that you know how to do so and understand the rules of the road, why a gun? There are moderate steps to be taken that need not divide us into warring camps.
At the end of the day, none of these steps may be enough to prevent the next Newtown, although they may help. At the end of the day, each of us needs to take personal responsibility, however difficult that may be. Personal responsibility means never allowing a gun to get into the hands of a troubled person, and admitting your father or your son needs help and getting it for him. It means taking responsibility for your ownership of a dangerous weapon.
In political debates, conservatives claim ownership of "personal responsibility." Now is the time to show it.