We are about to find out whether a civilized society can sensibly deal with a culture that, in the aftermath of the slaughter of 20 innocent schoolchildren and six staff members, sent thousands of citizens scurrying out to purchase the kind of battlefield weapon used in the killings. Despite such insanity, can Congress find some way to mute the sound of rapid-fire mayhem?
The National Rifle Association, the chief lobbying organization for the industry and its adherents, claims that since the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., its membership of 4.5 million has swollen by more than 100,000. If true, it convincingly makes the case that this tragedy and the resulting fear of anti-gun action was perhaps the NRA's greatest recruiting tool.
That is not lost on Congress, despite a recent Washington Post-ABC poll indicating that a majority of Americans now support at least a moderate program to control the sale and dissemination of some weapons, including the amount of ammunition they dispense in expanded clips. They want anyone buying a firearm -- including at gun shows -- to undergo a background check. They want greater cooperation in sharing data and information about potentially dangerous individuals, particularly those who have recorded signs of mental instability. They also want more budgetary support for federal agencies -- such as the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- to modernize data collection, deal with persistent criminal gun-trafficking and impose stiff penalties for obvious straw purchases.
In other words, most Americans want to restore some common sense to an arena that has had precious little of it in the last four decades. President Barack Obama is betting heavily on their support to convince long-recalcitrant legislators to put aside political considerations and adopt his program. It's a long shot and he knows it. The NRA and its absolutist allies want none of this: Guns, they apparently truly believe, are not the cause of our violence.
The NRA's influence over both parties is considerable. The lobby spends tens of millions of dollars against dissidents and gins up its followers to almost rabid fervor. Among Republicans, it is not the general election they fear but the primaries, where a vote for reasonableness on this and other issues can bring instantaneous challenge from radicals.
Many proponents of stricter gun laws and regulations reluctantly would accept having armed guards stationed at elementary and secondary schools -- some even would support arming teachers -- acknowledging it's impossible to keep weapons out of the hands of every mentally unstable person.
What does it say about our society that children must be reminded daily of potential threats to their safety? But then, "guns don't kill people, people kill people." That ridiculous mantra has become the battle cry of the paranoid, though it utterly ignores the fact that if the guns weren't there -- well, you figure out the rest.
Sadly, it has taken several back-to-back horror shows -- such as the 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and wounded more than a dozen others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the July movie-theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., that killed at least 13 -- to convince some supporters of unlimited gun access that things must change. But that may not be enough to override the prevailing congressional fear of the NRA and its backers.
Obama, who in his first four years refused to buck this system, now must face the immutable fact that Second Amendment absolutists consider the constitutional protection for gun ownership to be sacred. Some seem to believe the amendment was handed down by the Almighty to our 18th-century founders. That none of these founders could have conceived of the kind of weaponry now in vogue, or of the nation's urbanization, is deemed utterly irrelevant by irrational firearm zealots, including members of the Supreme Court.
Obama faces a fight at least as tough as the one over the debt ceiling. Let's hope he understands the fanaticism he is about to confront.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)