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Obama settles for half measures on gun control

For all the clamor from the White House and many in Congress to address the American scourge of gun violence, signs continue to point to a half-measure solution at best.

President Barack Obama's State of the Union plea to the nation's lawmakers that the victims of the Newtown and other tragedies "deserve a vote" on gun-control legislation is sounding more like advice to provide window-dressing than bold action to curb the mayhem.

The Obama administration has called for three-pronged approach that includes restoration of the assault-weapons ban enacted in 1994 but dropped in 2004, the tightening of background checks on gun purchases, especially at gun shows, and tougher limits on bullet-bearing gun clips and magazines.

The 10-to-8 partisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to send another assault-weapons ban to the Senate floor suggests little more than an empty gesture. Sixty Senate votes are required to survive any threatened filibuster, and even passage there may well augur defeat in the Republican-controlled House.

In this light, a consensus seems to have emerged already that the best hopes for stronger action against gun violence lie in the other two legs of the White House proposal. These also face stiff opposition, particularly in the House, led by the NRA and gun owners in rural and western America.

Passage of these two will be hailed as a victory against gun violence even if the assault-weapons ban is not restored. But left untaken will be the most obvious step to convince a fearful nation that the senseless killing of kids and adults alike will be confronted in a direct and major way.

The principal sponsor of the assault-weapons ban, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who also pushed through the original prohibition, acknowledged after the Judiciary Committee vote that "the road is uphill." All the president offered in a statement was that "the full Senate and the House need to vote on his bill, as well as the (other) measures advanced in the past week. Each of these proposals deserves a vote."

But while he has already endorsed the ban, the background checks and limits on bullets in gun cartridges, Mr. Obama's emphasis again seemed to be on achieving a vote on each rather than a demand for passage.

His press secretary offered only a mealy-mouthed observation that "the president understands that these are tough issues. If this weren't a tough issue, the assault-weapons ban would not have expired and not been renewed." But the Newtown and other gun tragedies supposedly had changed the public climate. Vice President Joe Biden has been handed the baton as Mr. Obama himself appears to have pivoted to romancing congressional Republicans resistant to his budgetary proposals.

Senator Feinstein for her part has kept her focus on the fight against assault weapons that she led two decades ago. In a bitter exchange prior to the Judiciary Committee vote with freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, she heatedly brushed off his implication that the ban she was proposing was akin to challenging the constitutional rights of free speech and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Senator Cruz asked: "Would she deem it consistent with the Bill of Rights for Congress to engage in the same endeavor that we are contemplating doing to the Second Amendment in the context of the First or Fourth Amendment?"

Ms. Feinstein angrily replied: "It's fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know that I've been here a long time, I've passed a number of bills. I've studied the Constitution myself." She noted that her bill, which would outlaw about 160 specific assault weapons, "exempts 2,271 weapons. Isn't that enough for the people of the United States?" she asked Mr. Cruz. "Do they need a bazooka?"

The full Senate is now expected to vote on all the anti-violence gun proposals next month. Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy said all 100 senators then should vote one way or other on them, in a repetition of Mr. Obama's earlier call on all the lawmakers who sat before him in the House chamber to do so. But that utterance was hardly a resounding pitch on how to cast those votes. There's still time for him to say how, and more emphatically.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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