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Susan Estrich: Politics, Gun Control and Personal Responsibility

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, every politician who has me on their email list — and there are many, on both sides of the aisle — has been filling my inbox. All of the messages begin with the requisite expression of shock and horror, the business of sending out our hearts and prayers to those who mourn. Then the gun control advocates insist that now is the time for congressional action, and the opponents caution that no legislation is going to stop people (not guns) from killing.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg remembers that after he suffered painful losses in the past year, friends repeatedly cautioned that “it was no time to make big decisions.” I’ve heard the same advice. Were I speaking to one of the bereaved family members, I might well say the same thing.

But I’m not. I’m talking to political interest group leaders, to elected officials, to people like you and me, whatever side of the aisle we may find ourselves on.

Some years ago, I was booked to appear on one of those crossfire-like shows with a senior National Rifle Association official. The booker, embarrassed, called to cancel me because the NRA official (the one they really wanted) refused to go on against me. Why? I’d never met the man, never called him names, never attacked him in a personal way. She didn’t know and hung up quickly.

When I watched the segment later, it was perfectly clear. He didn’t want to appear with someone like me: a realist, someone desperately in search of reasonable steps in the middle, actions that would not necessarily divide the nation between gun-lovers and gun-haters. He preferred the “whack ball on the left” who is a much easier target.

That is how the gun debate has unfolded in America.

After a weekend of shared pain, after brilliant words by the president, the Tuesday papers report that with the fiscal cliff looming and a commitment to seek bipartisan immigration reform, with polls showing the country favoring new legislation but only by margins of 54 percent to 43 percent, there are no specific proposals President Barack Obama intends to push through Congress, and the NRA is not backing down.

As the days pass, as it becomes clear that one proposal or another would not necessarily have stopped Newtown (he didn’t, after all, buy the gun at a gun show; it wasn’t a flawed background check that allowed him to purchase it at a gun store), the danger is that what happened after the horrible movie shootings in Aurora, Colo., and after the tragic shooting of Gabby Giffords (and the murder of those unlucky enough to be outside the market with her) will happen here: paralysis.

Obama has a unique advantage that he didn’t have two months ago or two years ago. Yes, he needs to convince the Republican Congress to pass other important measures. But there are steps he can take without congressional action, such as using government funds to improve databases that do not include information about mental instability. There are former opponents of gun control legislation, like Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, who are ready to lead a fight for tighter controls. And the president, in his second term, needs to worry about getting measures through Congress and not getting re-elected. It makes a difference.

We are never going to ban law-abiding, stable and well-trained citizens from owning guns. I have never understood why that is not enough for gun advocates, who always claim (and I have no reason to think otherwise) they are just that.

But why assault weapons? Who needs an assault weapon for self-defense? Police officials are almost uniformly against private ownership of such weapons. If we can’t get all the weapons on the street, why not regulate the sale of ammunition? People who have a right to own guns have nothing to fear from fulsome background checks. If you can’t get a license to drive a car without proof that you know how to do so and understand the rules of the road, why a gun? There are moderate steps to be taken that need not divide us into warring camps.

At the end of the day, none of these steps may be enough to prevent the next Newtown, although they may help. At the end of the day, each of us needs to take personal responsibility, however difficult that may be. Personal responsibility means never allowing a gun to get into the hands of a troubled person, and admitting your father or your son needs help and getting it for him. It means taking responsibility for your ownership of a dangerous weapon.

In political debates, conservatives claim ownership of “personal responsibility.” Now is the time to show it.

— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is 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.

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