Skip to main content

Why Obama shouldn't lead fight against gun violence

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: What happens after the mourning is over?
  • He says a presidential-led effort on gun safety will likely fail for political reasons
  • It would be better if campaign were modeled on MADD, with victims' families leading, he says

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel "Patriots" and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Monday will be a day of mourning for the slain schoolchildren of Newtown, Connecticut. Then what? Some are urging President Barack Obama to lead a national campaign for tighter control of firearms.

Bad idea. If the president -- any president -- inserts himself into the gun debate, he will inevitably polarize it. Supporters of the president will rally, but opponents of the president will become more obdurate. Because the president has many items on his agenda, and often needs the votes of Democrats from districts where pro-gun feeling runs strong, his opponents will probably outlast him.

Presidential leadership on guns will most likely fail for another reason, one that comes from a darker and grimmer place in American culture.

David Frum
David Frum

I've written before at CNN about the paradoxes of American gun ownership.

Here's one more such paradox: Obama has done literally nothing to restrict the (large and growing) rights of gun owners. President Bill Clinton signed two important pieces of gun control legislation and issued many restrictive executive orders; Obama has not so much as introduced even one.

Yet the election of Obama has triggered an angry reaction among gun owners fiercer than anything seen under Clinton. Between 1960 and the late 1990s, there occurred a gradual decline in the percentage of American homes that contain a gun, from about one-half to about one-third.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



(This trend is at least partly explained by the decline of hunting as a sport. In 2011, about 6% of Americans aged 16 or over went hunting even once in the year. )

In 2009, however, that trend away from guns abruptly went into reverse. Gun buying spiked in the Obama administration, pushing the share of households with a gun all the way back up to 47%, near the 1960 peak, even as crime rates tumbled to the lowest levels ever recorded, making guns less necessary than ever to self-defense. Black Friday 2012 set a one-day record for gun sales.

What's going on?

President Barack Obama speaks Sunday at an interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut, for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School. President Barack Obama speaks Sunday at an interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut, for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
President Obama addresses Newtown
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
President Obama addresses Newtown President Obama addresses Newtown
Remembering the Sandy Hook victims
Obama: 'You are not alone'

People who buy guns for self-defense do not look only to the statistics for information about the dangers they face. They are guided by their own perceptions, and often their own misperceptions. By the numbers, Obama's America is probably the safest America ever.

But in the imaginations of millions of people, Obama's America is threatened by social instability. For many, the president himself is the leading symbol of the changes they fear. The more the president leads the campaign for gun control, the more hopeless that campaign will be.

Instead, progress to more rational gun laws must be led from outside the political system. Look at the success of the campaign against drunken driving.

In 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was struck and killed by a drunken driver. That driver had recently been arrested for another driving under the influence offense, but he remained on the road to kill again. Cari's mother, Candice, threw herself into the cause of stopping drunken driving. A powerful organizer, she founded a group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that not only changed laws at the federal and state level, but also changed the larger cultural context.

Forty years ago, the hugely popular entertainer, Dean Martin, made giggling jokes about being drunk at the wheel. Today, in millions of American homes, workplaces and restaurants, "friends don't let friends drive drunk" has replaced "one for the road."

This is the model for the future campaign against dangerous weapons.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties -- Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car. Guns are part of the cherished American culture of the outdoors. In many parts of the country, a deer rifle literally puts meat on the table.

In other parts, a revolver in the bedroom dresser drawer is the frightened spouse's last defense against an abusive partner, or the gay urban homesteader's final protection against violent bigots. Guns can be souvenirs of heroic moments on faraway battlefields, mementoes of national history, or art objects of great beauty.

It's harder to imagine why any civilian would need a semiautomatic weapon. Still, it's a free country, and gun ownership is one of the freedoms specifically cited in the Constitution. Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons -- such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose -- and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Prospective gun owners should be required to take serious training and pass a safety exam before qualifying for a license. They should be screened for mental illness and histories of violence, very much including domestic violence. They should be required to buy insurance against the harm done by wrongful use of their weapons, and if that insurance proves expensive -- well, too bad. People apprehended in possession of an unlicensed weapon should face severe sanctions.

At the same time, we also need to pay attention to the role of mental health professionals in averting such horrors like the Newtown massacre. In a survey of mass killings published in 2000, The New York Times observed: "They give lots of warning and even tell people explicitly what they plan to do."

Yet it's exceeding difficult in this country to compel treatment of the mentally ill, even as they prepare to commit the worst crimes. The Associated Press reported this disturbing story on October 1:

"Andrew Engeldinger's parents pushed him for two years to seek treatment for what they suspected was mental illness, but even though he became increasingly paranoid and experienced delusions, there was nothing more they could do.

"Minnesota law doesn't allow people to be forced into treatment without proof that they are a threat to themselves or others. Engeldinger's parents were horrified last week, when their 36-year-old son went on a workplace shooting spree that led to the deaths of a Minneapolis sign company's owner, several of his employees and a UPS driver. Engeldinger then killed himself."

It's important to ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of people like Engeldinger. It's also important to expedite the process by which family and friends can require them to accept treatment.

Such measures might not produce immediate results, but like the campaign against drunken driving, would steadily enhance gun safety and raise higher the obstacles to the obtaining of weapons by people likely to misuse them.

As with any public safety measure, the goal is not absolute security. We'll never reduce the toll of crime, accident and general human mayhem to zero. But after the seventh mass killings of this single year 2012, isn't it about time that we tried to reduce the toll at least somewhat?

The politicians can't or won't. But one of the many, many families bereaved in this year of random violence -- maybe they will be moved to follow for the victims of gun crime the lead Candice Lightner established for the victims of reckless driving?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT