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Obama Enters Gun Control Debate Gingerly

Two months after the tragic shooting in Tucson, President Obama quietly placed an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star commencing the debate on gun laws that should arise as a result. This is a pretty muted response, but let’s see what he views as priorities:

• First, we should begin by enforcing laws that are already on the books. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System is the filter that’s supposed to stop the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun. Bipartisan legislation four years ago was supposed to strengthen this system, but it hasn’t been properly implemented. It relies on data supplied by states – but that data is often incomplete and inadequate. We must do better.

• Second, we should in fact reward the states that provide the best data – and therefore do the most to protect our citizens.

• Third, we should make the system faster and nimbler. We should provide an instant, accurate, comprehensive and consistent system for background checks to sellers who want to do the right thing, and make sure that criminals can’t escape it.

Porous background checks are bad for police officers, for law-abiding citizens and for the sellers themselves. If we’re serious about keeping guns away from someone who’s made up his mind to kill, then we can’t allow a situation where a responsible seller denies him a weapon at one store, but he effortlessly buys the same gun someplace else.

Obama describes this as the beginning of a “new discussion” on guns in America, while being careful to state that his Administration has not curtailed Second Amendment rights, which he believes have been definitively adjudicated by the nation’s highest court.

As for the Criminal Background Check System, I would say that the President has the ability to implement whatever changes to that system he wants. He could lean on the states to provide data in a more timely manner. And there is a lot unsaid here. The “gun show loophole,” which allows people to purchase guns without a background check, is the elephant in the room.

Obama avoids the discussion of high-capacity magazine clips like the one Jared Loughner used, or the broken American mental health system that never gave Loughner care he clearly needed. Once again we have a cautious middle course. But even on those terms, I’m not sure what he’s endorsing here. Does he want to close the gun show loophole? Does he need legislation to carry out his vision of responsible and consistent background checks? Is it all just a matter of enforcement?

This op-ed leaves more questions than answers.

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David Dayen

David Dayen