With President Obama’s announcement of a commission to study and recommend ways to reduce gun violence, the two most important Democrats in government — Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — have both indicated a desire to slow the momentum toward gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. The president’s decision to appoint a blue-ribbon panel — the classic Washington ploy to defuse and delay consideration of an issue — along with Reid’s inaction on the gun question will undoubtedly frustrate many in their party who want immediate action.
Obama seemed to anticipate that frustration when he announced the creation of the commission, to be headed by Vice President Joe Biden, in the White House briefing room Wednesday morning. “This is not some Washington commission,” Obama said. “This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside.” To stress his determination, Obama said the Biden Commission must report its findings in January. Its task, he said, is “to pull together real reforms right now.”
Obama’s move will likely dissipate the energy behind gun control advocacy on Capitol Hill. It’s unlikely that even the most pro-gun-control Democrats would want to get out in front of the Biden Commission and pass specific measures. And the political world, and the emotional intensity behind the gun issue, could be quite different even a month from now. So Obama is stopping Democratic momentum, and he knows it. Republicans know it, too. “The creation of a commission is by definition an effort to freeze in place whatever object it seeks to examine,” says one senior Republican Senate aide.
Reid apparently wants the same thing. Meeting reporters Tuesday, Reid made clear that he does not intend to do much of anything on the gun issue. Asked “what gun control measures would you support going forward?” Reid’s answer was a study in saying nothing:
REID: I watched the prayers, I watched everything that took place in Connecticut Sunday night. No one law can erase evil; that’s what the president said, and he’s right. But we need to accept the reality that we’re not doing enough to protect our citizens. I’m very happy that the president’s going to do everything he can administratively. We must engage on a thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence not continue to grow. Every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to keep our children safe.
QUESTION: Can you speak specifically [about any] particular gun control measure?
REID: No. No, I’ve been very clear here. I think we have to have a full discussion.
Reid is not alone among Democrats. Although there has been much press coverage of some in the party, among them West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who appear to have softened on gun legislation, there are others who most definitely have not. “I’m going to be one of the more cautious (ones) about doing anything on new gun laws,” Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich told the Anchorage Daily News. “I want to be careful that we just don’t start throwing new laws on the books, driven by emotion, when we need to refocus on this whole issue.” Begich told the paper he preferred to concentrate on the mental illness involved in recent shootings.
In the days since the Newtown killings, many Democrats and their supporters in the press have expressed a desire to enact “meaningful” gun control as soon as possible. In two brief statements, President Obama and Harry Reid have poured some very cold water on those hopes.