WASHINGTON--Try to imagine that hundreds or thousands of guns including assault weapons were pouring across the Mexican border into Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California, arming criminal gangs who were killing American law enforcement officials and other U.S. citizens.
Then imagine the Mexican president saying, "Well, we would really like to do something about this, but our political system makes helping you very difficult." Wouldn't Mexico's usual critics attack that country's political system for corruption and ineptitude and ask: "Why can't they stop this lawlessness?"
That, in reverse, is the position President Obama was in last week when he visited Mexico. The Mexican gangs are able to use guns purchased in the United States because of our insanely permissive gun regulations, and Obama had to issue this unbelievably clotted, apologetic statement at a news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon:
I continue to believe that we can respect and honor the Second
Amendment rights in our Constitution, the rights of sportsmen and
hunters and homeowners who want to keep their families safe, to
lawfully bear arms, while dealing with assault weapons that, as we
know, here in Mexico, are helping to fuel extraordinary violence.
Violence in our own country as well. Now, having said that, I think
none of us are under the illusion that reinstating that ban would
In other words: Our president can deal with all manner of big problems, but the American gun lobby is just too strong to let him push a rational and limited gun regulation through Congress.
It's particularly infuriating that Obama offered this statement of powerlessness just a few days before the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado--and during a month in which at least 57 people were killed in eight mass homicides across the U.S.
No other democratic country in the world has the foolish, ineffectual gun regulations that we do. And unfortunately, what Obama said is probably true.
Earlier this year, when Attorney General Eric Holder called for a renewal of the ban on assault weapons--he was only repeating the commitment Obama made during his presidential campaign--the response from a group of 65 pro-gun House Democrats was: No way.
Their letter to Holder was absurd. "The gun-control community has intentionally misled many Americans into believing that these weapons are fully automatic machine guns. They are not. These firearms fire one shot for every pull of the trigger." Doesn't that make you feel better?
Those Democrats should sit down with Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. "Time and time again, our police are finding themselves outgunned," Rendell said in Harrisburg last week. "They are finding themselves with less firepower than the criminals they are trying to bring to justice."
The Democratic governor told his own state's legislators that if they didn't support such a ban, "then don't come to those memorial services" for the victims of gun violence. "It's wrong," he said. "It's hypocritical."
And why can't we at least close the gun show loophole? Licensed arms dealers have to do background checks on people who buy guns. The rules don't apply at gun shows that, as the Violence Policy Center put it, have become "Tupperware Parties for Criminals."
But too many members of Congress are "petrified" by the gun lobby, says Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a crusader for sane gun legislation ever since her husband was killed and her son paralyzed by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
Family members of the victims of gun violence, she says, are mystified at Congress' inability to pass even the most limited regulations. "Why can't you just get this done?" she is asked. "What is it you don't understand?"
Obama, at least, should understand this: He was not elected by the gun lobby. It worked hard to rally gun owners against him--and failed to stop him.
According to a 2008 exit poll, Obama received just 37 percent among voters in households where guns are present--barely different from John Kerry's 36 percent in 2004. But in the substantial majority of households that don't have guns, Obama got 65 percent, up eight points on Kerry. Will Obama stand up for the people who actually voted for him?
Yes, I understand about swing voters, swing states and all that. But given Congress' default to the apologists for loose gun laws, it will take a president to make something happen.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne