Politics & Policy

Last Night’s Gun Debate Was a Pleasant Surprise

(Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty)

Truth be told, I expected last night’s “Guns in America” town hall to be an exercise in unalloyed propaganda. Mercifully, it was no such thing. The president was calm, and mostly respectful. The questions were substantive and various. The moderation was refreshingly harsh. And, most importantly of all, both sides were forced to look each other in the eye.

Nothing new was said — despite the routine insistence to the contrary, we are in fact having a robust “conversation about firearms in America”; it’s just that the Left is losing — but the way in which it was said was welcome and new. Bar a few conspiratorial digs at the “gun lobby” and some unnecessary mockery of Americans who are “scared,” this was about as good a conversation as we are going to have this year. There was no screaming. There were no dramatic interruptions. The hyperbole was kept under control. It was a success.

It was also clarifying. Typically, our Second Amendment debates are one-sided. Speaking to their acolytes, those who oppose further regulations generalize the matters at hand to the breaking point. Elsewhere, their adversaries do the same: In a high-school gym with his sleeves rolled up, President Obama relies heavily upon mockery and disdain. But last night, neither party was given a chance to play to the crowd. Because they were standing a few feet from him, Obama’s detractors were forced to explain calmly and rationally why they disagree with his actions. And, because he had to look right back at them, Obama was forced to listen to their concerns. From what I could see, neither “side” had the advantage. There were plenty of defenders of the right to bear arms in the room, and plenty of critics, too.

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The end result was that the president was more boxed in than he is accustomed to being — not, you will note, because he was shouted down or presented with loaded questions, but because his grander plans are out of step with public opinion, and because it is difficult to sell them with abstractions over an 80-minute debate. If, as I suspect, Obama’s hope was to make a broader case for “doing something,” he failed. At times, his gun-control agenda has been more ambitious than it is at present: In the last three years, he has argued that certain semi-automatic weapons should be banned, that “high-capacity” magazines should be taken off the market, and that the federal government should regulate the private, intrastate transfer of previously owned weapons. Last night, however, he stuck to the lattermost proposal, and sold his executive orders as best he could. If this was the start of a sustained push, it was a quiet one, to say the least.

#share#All told, the advocates of stringent regulation must have been disappointed. Although he held his own, Obama was nevertheless forced to retreat into modesty. Indeed, each time he flirted aloud with a broader anti-gun argument, he was pushed quickly to disavow it in the crib. In perhaps his boldest moment, he suggested that Newtown couldn’t have happened without the weapons the killer used, and he asked the audience to look at China, where mass attacks tend to be perpetrated with significantly less lethal knives. Elsewhere, however, he was quick to undermine that line of inquiry by assuring his critics that nothing in his plan would take their guns away or prevent them from buying more. As for the notion of mass gun confiscation à la Australia and Britain? That, Obama said, was a “conspiracy” theory, along the lines of Jade Helm. In the moment, he won the point; in the long term, though, he helped to render as fantasy the idea that anyone sensible would seek to reduce the number of guns that are already in circulation.

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To the president’s obvious irritation, the NRA stayed away. That, in my estimation, was a good move. There are millions upon millions of well-informed citizens who can make the case for gun rights without Wayne LaPierre’s help — and do so without being branded a front for profiteers. It was to CNN’s credit that they invited as participants Chris Kyle’s widow, Taya, and a survivor of rape, Kimberly Weeks, both of whom are staunchly opposed to further restrictions. It was to Obama’s credit that he treated them so graciously.

#related#I cannot help but feel that we were treated last night to a fleeting glimpse of a reality that could have been. Passionate as he was, this was the Obama that we were promised in 2004: the man of no red states and no blue states; the man who hoped to persuade rather than to condescend; a political man, to be sure, but one who seemed to grasp the realities of the country he leads. At the beginning of the night, I offered a sarcastic quip: This, I suggested, was a bastardization of the term “Town Hall,” and a disgrace to Tocqueville’s memory. One hour and 20 minutes later, I was happy to accept that quite the opposite had come to pass in Virginia.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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