Do not turn your eyes from the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children, their teachers and aides, their school principal shot repeatedly, in some cases beyond recognition, by a 20-year-old wielding a semiautomatic assault weapon.
As he has shown in his moving words after the horror, President Obama clearly is grief-stricken, as we all should be, about the children murdered in their innocence.
“Can we honestly say we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” Obama asked in his remarks in Newtown. “If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough and we will have to change.”
The president pledged that “in the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
As the president said, we’ve seen too many of these tragedies. And daily in major cities like Chicago, the trauma builds. This year, as of Dec. 10, Chicago has witnessed 485 killed in gun violence; 125 under the age of 18.
Legislators are afraid to act because the gun lobby is well funded, and this country is saturated in guns. As of 2009, there were an estimated 310 million non-military firearms owned in America. There are 129,817 federally licensed firearms dealers, of which 51,438 are retail gun stores. That compares with 10,787 Starbucks stores, and 143,839 gas stations across the country. And that doesn’t count gun shows. Some 40 percent of guns are sold in unlicensed private sales.
So, if action is to take place, Americans in large numbers must make their voices heard.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the original authors of the 1994 assault weapons ban, has vowed to introduce a new ban on the sale of assault weapons on the first day of Congress. President Obama could lead the drive for that.
On his own, the president could challenge Americans to rethink our infatuation with guns and violence. I would invite him to come home to Chicago to challenge the nation to understand the daily toll gun violence takes.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called on the president to increase resources and priority given to enforcing the gun control laws already on the books. According to Bloomberg, 77,000 people were accused of lying when issued gun permits, but only 77 have been prosecuted.
The New York Times reports that after the Gabby Giffords shooting, the Department of Justice reviewed what could be done to strengthen gun control enforcement. One measure was to compel federal agencies to merge information about the mentally incompetent into the background check database.
Obama could use a platform in Chicago to challenge states and cities across the country to act. The gun lobby has persuaded many state legislatures to strip municipalities of their power to regulate guns. The president could enlist public officials from major cities and suburban jurisdictions to push hard on states to give back that power to act -- and enlist citizens to march on state legislatures to get them to act. Instead of expanding concealed weapons laws, cities and suburban districts could unite to put strict limits on handguns and assault weapons.
Will the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary and the daily slaughter on our urban streets force action? Or will more horrors have to be visited on more children? Strict gun-control laws won’t end gun violence -- not with 310 million guns already spread through the country. But we can do more to protect our children -- and we must.
(Clarence Page is on vacation. This column, by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was written prior to the president’s Wednesday afternoon press conference.)