For those with feeble memories (count me in), you may recall that our country for a full decade actually had a federal assault weapons ban on the books. It was passed in 1994 — just before the Gingrich "Republican wave" mid-term elections.
But with the post-9/11 political climate, the radicalization of the Republican Party, and the enormous lobbying clout of the NRA, its renewal was never an issue. In fact, new legislation never came to a vote. The ban simply expired at midnight on September 13, 2004, not with a bang, but a whimper.
Had such an assault weapons ban still been in place today, of course, Jared Lee Loughner would have had trouble getting his hands on the particular weapon of destruction he chose for his "mission," the one that allowed him to transform his own role from that of delusional lone assassin (e.g., James Earl Ray) into that of a delusional mass-murderer. The 33-round extended magazine installed in his 9-mm Glock pistol would have been banned had the 1994-2004 law been extended.
Since the expiration of the assault weapons ban, several attempts have been made to renew the legislation, most recently in 2008 in a House bill sponsored by Mark Kirk, Illinois' new Democratic senator. It died in committee.
Such a ban will probably never get through this new House, either, given how few moderate Republicans are left, or even through the theoretically Democratic Senate, given how much loot flows into the campaign coffers of both Democratic and Republican members from the National Rifle Association. Even Congresswoman Gabby Giffords — just like former Ronald Reagan aide Jim Brady, before he was shot — was given to supporting the NRA.
President Barack Obama up to now has been peculiarly ambivalent on the subject. Shortly after his election, the new administration put "making the expired federal assault weapons ban permanent" on its to-do list. But in April 2009, the president stated that he would not push for reinstatement of the ban, though he said at the time he believed it "makes sense."
Assuming he still thinks a ban is sensible, will Obama use the catalyst of the Tucson tragedy to put the matter front and center again or simply leave the ban on the back burner, so as not to put his congressional colleagues in hot water with the NRA? Will he make a renewal of the ban a priority and say as much in next week's State of the Union address?
I confess to having a hard time understanding why the president would not make this a major 2011 political issue, not only because it's the morally right thing to do (sorry, you don't need a 33-bullet magazine to hunt deer), but also because pushing for a new assault weapons ban presents him with a political opportunity of the first order. Sure, he'll find himself in the NRA's "crosshairs" (as if he isn't there already), and the chance of any ban with teeth getting through the new Republican House is probably slim to none.
But if he speaks out next week, Obama would be making a powerful statement. He would capitalize upon the overwhelming public support for such a ban that exists outside the America consisting of FoxNews viewers. He would be (some would say, finally) galvanizing his political base on an issue that enjoys near universal support among those who pushed and shoved him into the White House in 2008. And he would play a powerful domestic security card as well, i.e., "I'm the guy who wants to keep your 9-year-old daughter from getting randomly killed."
Speaking out on the issue would put the ball squarely back in the Republicans' court, requiring members of Congress and the NRA to blow cover and explain to the American people why they think everybody should have the right to own their own assault weapon — or three.
Needless to say, I hope the president draws a line in the sand on this issue next week. I want to see no more Tucsons in my lifetime. And I want to make sure that my own grandchildren can attend Congressman Steve Cohen's public meetings without wearing bullet-proof vests.
Kenneth Neill is the publisher and founder of the Memphis Flyer.