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Susan Estrich: The Sandy Hook Promise and the Pontificators

My eyes filled with tears as I listened to the parents of the victims of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., speak out, many for the first time. They gathered to announce the founding of a nonprofit group Sandy Hook Promise. Their purpose was to engage in the public dialogue about what they called “gun responsibility.” They want something positive to come from their children’s deaths.

They did not endorse a specific proposal. They said they needed more time to do that; they lost their children a month ago. They said that before they speak out, they want to educate themselves more. They also said that the discussion must not be limited to gun control, that it must include issues relating to mental health.

On the same day, freshman Rep. Steve Stockman announced in a statement that if President Barack Obama were to use executive orders to control access to guns, he would file articles of impeachment against him because the orders would “infringe on our constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms.” For her part, conservative columnist (and law school graduate) Ann Coulter urged Republicans to shut down abortion clinics if the president or congressional Democrats impose limits on guns.

If it weren’t for the fact that they spoke out on the same day as the mourning parents, I’d ignore the noise from Stockman and Coulter altogether. But the dignity of the parents stands in such contrast to the indignity of those who should know better that it deserves to be addressed.

What this country needs, as the Sandy Hook parents recognize and the loudmouths don’t, is a dialogue, not a collection of threats that, if carried out, would themselves be unconstitutional.

Even high-school students know about Marbury v. Madison, the famous decision in which Chief Justice John Marshall established the rule that the Supreme Court determines the unconstitutionality of laws, not a congressman or a columnist. If Stockman is of the view that the president’s executive orders or bills that might be passed by Congress are unconstitutional, then he and his friends in the National Rifle Association can (and, no matter how reasonable the actions, most surely will) challenge them in the court.

If Coulter objects on Second Amendment grounds, she is free as a lawyer to participate in the briefing of the case, to organize an “amicus” brief to make her arguments clear and, of course, to write about it. You don’t deprive one group of its constitutional rights because you think a law or executive order on an entirely different subject is unconstitutional.

Reading the pained, determined, sober statements of the grieving families of Newtown against the loudmouthed rantings of attention-getters (and yes, I know, there are attention-getters on both sides who are equally uninterested in facts) demonstrates with painful clarity exactly what is wrong with public discourse in America. With few exceptions — Sandy Hook Promise being one of the very few — the people who scream the most loudly get all the attention. No wonder we are divided into politicized and partisan corners — or at least no wonder it seems that way.

On the same day that the Newtown families were standing up for civility and those in the Stockman/Coulter crowd were screaming through their megaphones and getting plenty of attention for their extremism, a new study from the Pew Research Center revealed that, in fact, there is more consensus on gun regulation than it sounds like from all the noise.

According to the Pew study, conducted earlier this month, 85 percent of Americans support closing the “gun show loophole” and making private and gun show sales subject to background checks, and 80 percent are in favor of laws preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns. Support is strong from both parties. As for a federal database to track gun purchases, 49 percent of Republicans support the idea, and 67 percent of the public (including 84 percent of Democrats) is in favor.

I don’t understand why half the Republicans surveyed would be against a database. Law-abiding gun owners have nothing to fear. But it’s precisely the sort of conversation we need to have, the kind of public dialogue that needs to take place, the sort of discourse that the Stockmans and Coulters would drown out if they had their way.

I don’t know that there is anything — anything — we might accomplish that would ease the pain of losing a first-grader. But at the very least, the rest of us owe it to the courageous parents of Sandy Hook to join in their promise — and make good on it — no matter how many people, on either side, are screaming in the background.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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