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Rob Horowitz: Sandy Hook Tragedy a Chance for Common Sense Gun Legislation

Thursday, December 20, 2012

 

The most moving part of President Obama’s remarks Sunday at a memorial service held at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was when he simply read aloud the names of the 20 young children and 6 school personnel that were gunned down there on Friday morning.

In the same remarks, Obama asked this important fundamental question, “Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children—all of them—safe from harm?”

Very few, if any of us, will answer “Yes.” As a result, in the wake of another and even more horrific killing that fits the all too familiar pattern of a ‘mentally disturbed young man’ using a high-powered gun firing many bullets per minute to mow down innocents, a window has now opened at least a crack for a national policy response that can lessen the number of future ‘Sandy Hooks’ and reduce the gun violence that still plagues our nation.

While it is the case that these kinds of well-publicized tragedies usually have only small and temporary impacts on public opinion, the scale of what occurred in Newtown, Connecticut combined with the fact that the victims were mainly young elementary school children is likely to strike a more lasting chord in American hearts and minds. Some early signs that this time it will be different is that strong pro-gun Senators and House members ducked interview requests over the weekend and Conservative commentators such as Britt Hume and William Bennett on network Sunday shows acknowledged a need for some regulation of assault weapons as part of an over-all comprehensive solution.

Still, achieving any real progress remains an uphill fight requiring a well-funded, sustained, strategically smart and focused public education and legislative campaign. Over the past 20 years, public opinion has moved steadily towards a pro gun rights position. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted this past April, 49 percent of Americans said it was more important to protect the gun rights of Americans, while 45 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership. Similarly, Gallup reports a majority of Americans prefer keeping existing gun laws or weakening them over putting in place stricter gun control laws. Contrast this with the early 1990s when nearly four out of five Americans were for stricter gun laws, according to Gallup.

Further, the National Rifle Association (NRA)--the most potent and effective lobbying and grassroots political organization in the nation—is already gearing up for an all out effort to block any new proposed restrictions on guns that emerge from this tragedy.

The best opportunity to succeed is to frame new legislative and executive action as a targeted policy response to limit “future Sandy Hooks’—rather than as a traditional gun control measure. The legislative proposal should combine specific steps to better identify and treat people with serious mental illnesses with narrowly tailored measures to strengthen and enforce the existing background check system for gun purchasers, ban the sale of semi-automatic and automatic weapons that can quickly fire multiple rounds, and close the gun show loophole that allows people at gun shows to buy guns without any background checks.

Success also depends on launching a well-funded and aggressive public education and lobbying campaign—one that builds a broad coalition that prominently features police and other members of law enforcement as well as gun owners who recognize the need for common sense measures. It will be important to repeatedly reassure people that nobody’s Second Amendment rights will be taken away. With this kind of campaign, the President and Congressional members such as Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the chief sponsor and advocate for the now expired Assault Weapons Ban who is planning to introduce new legislation on the first day of the New Congress, will be better able to persuade their colleagues that the time to act is now before we bury more of our kids.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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