In Monty Python’s “Lumberjack” sketch, a reluctant, nervous, and possibly psychotic barber pretends to cut his customer’s hair. Taking a solitary snip in the air, he proclaims that his job is done. Don’t be ridiculous old fellow, complains his charge. “I know when a chap’s cut my hair and when he hasn’t. So will you please stop fooling around and get on with it?”
Joe Biden might well have a similar conversation with the American public, for his gun-control commission has taken a comparable attitude toward its work. Tasked with the grandiose goal of making sure that an incident such as Sandy Hook “cannot happen again,” it has issued its report impossibly fast — one month and done. Today, on the anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition, Barack Obama endorsed Biden’s work. We are now to be ushered forward into broad, sunlit uplands
As one might expect, the report’s “findings” are not findings at all but the usual laundry list of progressive desires, this time set against the backdrop of small children and afforded cover by the half-truthful declaration that outside groups have been “consulted.” Earnest gun-control advocates possessed devoutly of the conviction that smart government action is capable of limiting violence might have hoped for a comprehensive inquiry. Instead, they got photo ops, platitudes, and hurried conversation. In place of rigorous thought, they got checked boxes, emotional bullying, and playacting. It strikes me that if you were cheered by the prospect of an American president’s taking up the topic, by now you must be sorely disappointed. After all, if the argument is that these measures were obviously necessary before the massacre at Sandy Hook but that it took that abomination to bring public opinion around, then we didn’t need a vice-presidential report to outline them, did we?
As in New York State, which rammed a series of “reforms” through yesterday, the real victor here was Haste, the patron saint of shoddy legislation. In Albany, the reactionary “improvements” of Governor Andrew Cuomo went from concept to law before you anyone could say, “Actually, there are some serious concerns among the state’s mental-health professionals.” No doubt that some of the features in the vice president’s parade of Things That Must Be Done will meet the same fate.
Throughout the process, Joe Biden has not kept the public informed of his progress as much as he has collected a bunch of clichés and strung them together with the only verbs he knows. You see, folks, people are more ready for legislation than ever because of their great and spontaneous awakening, and the time to act is now. If it saves just one life, we must seize this moment and do something of critical importance to make a real difference — but don’t worry if you’re a hunter, because the Second Amendment won’t be touched. And so on and so forth.
One cliché that Biden omitted was “Politics is the art of the possible.” This is a truism, perhaps. But possibility is not a strong justification for action. Nonetheless, it appears to be the administration’s operating principle. The president knows that he cannot get any meaningfully restrictive legislation through this Congress or past the American people, and so he has seen fit to outline what he can do without the legislature. To reserve as much of the action as possible to the realm of the executive order is practically and politically sensible, but it is not a blueprint for good law. If the White House believes an “assault weapons” ban or a restriction on the size of magazines is imperative, then it should steadily make that case and extend its time frame to years rather than months. Instead, it looks likely to go for a combination of very minor quick wins and larger symbolic gestures that it knows full well will die in Congress. What, a cynic might ask, are its real aims are here?
The vice president has been central to this charade. Joe Biden is Obama’s vice president in the sense that Constance Lloyd was Oscar Wilde’s wife. There is perhaps a little genuine warmth between the two, but Biden’s primary appeal to Obama is his public utility. Joe Biden softens and makes more attractive to the public the parts of the president’s persona that are less palatable: his professorial air, his tendency to lecture, his aloofness. Biden sounds at home discussing car factories and taxes and middle-class aspiration in a way that the president never will. The idea was to give Good Old Joe the gun remit. If Nixon could go to China, Biden could go to the NRA. Right? Certainly, the vice president would never call Americans “bitter clingers.”
On the contrary. In 2008, campaigning among Virginians at the annual fish fry of the United Mine Workers of America, Biden told the crowd in his best folksy, “G”-less yell that “Barack Obama ain’t taking my shotguns, so don’t buy that malarkey. Don’t buy that malarkey. They’re gonna — they’re gonna start peddling that to you. I got two. If he tries to fool with my Beretta, he’s got a problem.” Who better, then, to tell America that Obama now wants to legislate?
Who better, too, to form the backdrop at the proposal’s unveiling than a caboodle of children, whose vague letters about a “better world” were read out by the president at the start as if they were the Federalist Papers? This, together with the endless repetition of the word “children,” is a despicable trick; an inappropriate, manipulative, and mawkish affront to reason that highlights everything that is wrong with legislating while emotions run — or, rather, are kept — high. Can you conceive of the outrage that would arise should the National Rifle Association or the Republican House attempt to sell a national concealed-carry law while standing in front of children who had been saved by firearms? Or the indignation that might be visited upon a senator who labelled a firearms-liberalization bill the “Stop Our Sweet Babies from Being Killed by Bad Men Act”? Good. That is how you should feel about what happened this morning. The constant appeal to “the children” is a calculated attack on your intellect and an attempt to preempt your dissent. And, ultimately, it is a means of shepherding you away from your rightful position — as a master of the state in full possession of your liberties — and toward infantilization and servility.
Who, gun controllers ask, could oppose such a thing? Who could look into victims’ eyes and criticize these proposals? What shape of monster is against the children? Well, let me raise my hand. I am the sort of monster who could oppose it, and I will. I am very much “against the children” if this is what they ask of me. And I am against the vice president if this is what he asks of me, too. This has been a cynical pageant from start to finish.
At the end of Monty Python’s sketch, the terrified barber pulls out a tape machine, onto which he has recorded idle chatter and the sound of scissors clipping. For a minute or so, this fools his customer into believing that he is actually getting a haircut. Joe Biden’s phony commission might have convinced some Americans that the Obama administration was acting in good faith, too. But anybody who has watched it go about its business over the last month will realize that it has been merely snipping in the air.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.