A dollop of leadership

    No State of the Union speech would be complete without the ritual salute to designated heroes, so tonight President Obama will cue the clapping for Daniel Hernandez, the congressional intern who aided Gabrielle Giffords. But applause is easy, and it changes nothing. Unless Obama and Congress actually do something real, to toughen background checks and ban high-capacity clips, we’ll surely be hailing many more such heroes. They’ll manage to save a few people in future massacres, which of course is laudable, but they’ll barely make a dent in America’s body count.So it would be nice tonight if Obama managed to devote, at minimum, one whole paragraph to the crying need for common sense. It might be shocking if he did. He and his aides have been quaking in their shoes since Inauguation Day at the prospect of saying anything that might tick off gun lovers. Since the Arizona shootings, Obama hasn’t uttered so much as a syllable about, say, making it harder for mental cases to buy guns; nor has he once suggested that it might be a fine idea to deny all marauders the opportunity to shoot 30 innocents without the need to reload.Granted, America is a supremely violent society; therefore, it might be politically risky to suggest that we should be a teensy less violent. But given the fact that (according to the Centers for Disease Control), our national gun-related death rate is roughly 16 times higher than the combined rate of 25 other civilized countries, this issue clearly deserves at least a dollop of presidential leadership.The thing is, Obama would not be risking very much. Keeping guns away from whackos and banning high-capacity clips are actually centrist issues right now. According to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, 57 percent of Americans seek a ban on high-capacity clips. The latest CBS-New York Times poll puts that sentiment at 63 percent.Even Dick Cheney, the famed gun-rights hunter, signaled in an interview last week that high-capacity clips, which were outlawed during the 10-year assault weapons ban, should perhaps be outlawed again. In his words, “maybe it’s appropriate to reestablish that kind of thing.” And former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who is often a reliable barometer on mainstream Republican thinking, wrote this past weekend in The Wall Street Journal, “What civilian needs a pistol with a magazine that loads 33 bullets and allows you to kill that many people without even stopping to reload? No one but people with bad intent.” (Actually, from the gun lobby’s perspective, Reagan’s ex-aide is a flaming lefty. The NRA insists that these high-capacity clips are “standard equipment for self-defense,” used by law-abiding citizens “to improve their odds in defensive situations.”)Centrist sentiment is even stronger with respect to keeping guns away from the mentally imbalanced. The nonpartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday urged Congress to toughen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as well as the state reporting requirements, to ensure that “felons, mentally ill, and drug abusers” don’t slip through the cracks. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg viewed the State of the Union speech as “an opportunity for our president to make a strong pledge to fix our gun laws and shore up our background check system – because the state of our union includes the tragic reality that 34 Americans are murdered by with guns every single day.” Meanwhile, the new ABC-Post poll reports that 83 percent of Americans want stronger background checks of those with mental woes.One more stat: The bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal survey (conducted jointly by a Democratic pollster and a Republican pollster) now reports that 52 percent of Americans generally favor making the gun laws “more strict.” The survey also says that 53 percent of Americans currently support Obama’s job performance. NYC Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday, “What we need is the courage for somebody to stand up and do something, instead of just talk about it,” but the truth – given all these survey numbers – is that standing tall on this issue should be a no-brainer.Obama’s intent tonight is to occupy the political center, and these modest gun reforms are centrist. If the gun lobby shrieks and the Republican House obstructs, Obama would have ample running room to tag those positions as extreme.Even Bill Clinton – during his largely conciliatory 1995 State of the Union speech, delivered two months after his own midterm shellacking – saw fit to draw a line in the sand on guns. He hailed the ’94 passage of the assault weapons ban, “so that police officers and kids wouldn’t have to lay down their lives under a hail of assault weapon attack,” and he framed this reform as a centrist policy from which he would not retreat: “I will not let that be repealed. I will not let it be repealed.”Tonight, Obama has a similar opportunity to speak for common sense.

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