Executive order is wrong approach to guns

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The gun violence task force was convened in the wake of not one but two mass shootings in one deadly December week. President Barack Obama mentioned both in his address to the nation after the Newtown tragedy.

The stark difference between these two shootings -- in Newtown, Conn., and Portland, Ore. -- is one of many things the task force should weigh. But Joe Biden's recent warnings do not promise a dispassionate effort at reaching national consensus.

The vice president, who thought it appropriate to eye-roll and guffaw his way through a televised debate in October, has proven the perfect delivery system for the Obama administration's controversial proposals. His grinning-jester persona and bumptious behavior give the White House room for the proverbial walk-balk.

"Us, ignore the legislative process and the will of the people? Oh, you know Joe ..."

But the vice president has done it before -- most notably on gay marriage -- for an administration that has circumvented the law on everything from the Defense of Marriage Act to illegal immigration to U.S. involvement in the Libya conflict.

And now Mr. Biden has told the nation that the president will consider unilateral executive action -- instead of political leadership.

"The president is going to act," the vice president promised. "[W]e haven't decided what that is yet." Legislative action was mentioned as an afterthought.

With nearly 300 million guns in a nation of 330 million people, changes in gun ownership laws will directly impact far more Americans than do administration policies on, say, DOMA or Libya.

Seriously restricting gun ownership rights has consistently been judged unconstitutional.

Hinting to do so through executive order is foolish. But what if it's also counterproductive?

It is quite likely that a private citizen with a concealed carry permit ended what could have been a far bloodier rampage in a Portland mall three days before Newtown.

As Jacob Tyler Roberts moved through the mall firing at strangers, his stolen semi-automatic rifle jammed when he tried to reload. Nick Meli drew his own gun, took cover behind a pillar and aimed at the gunman. He did not shoot, because he saw a bystander in his line of fire; but he says the gunman definitely saw him, and it was from this location that the gunman retreated down a storage corridor and killed himself, leaving behind several fully loaded magazines.

Not every detail of Mr. Meli's account can be corroborated, but it's modest enough to pass the grandiosity smell test, and it explains the otherwise inexplicable end to this terrible event.

An unquestionable instance of an armed private citizen preventing the unthinkable is a 2007 Colorado Springs shooting. When gunman Matthew Murray burst into New Life Church with a semi-automatic rifle, two handguns and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, volunteer security guard Jeanne Assam drew her own handgun and shot him several times, ending a rampage that had already claimed four lives.

But Ms. Assam was a former police officer. Not all of us may have Ms. Assam's training or display Mr. Meli's restraint in Portland. Could the presence of more armed citizens prevent or lessen atrocities? If so, should training requirements be uniformly stringent?

Principal Dawn Hochsprung was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School when she lunged to disarm the gunman. There was an electronic security system, but Adam Lanza had shot it out on his way in.

Would an armed guard have accomplished what the principal could not?

Thousands of schools already have armed guards. Should they all? Should all theaters, churches and malls?

The Atlantic's December issue had gone to press weeks before the Newtown and Portland shootings with this headline on its cover: "The Case for More Guns." Author Jeffrey Goldberg makes his case. It's a sober, thorough investigation very much worth reading.

A fact easier to establish than how many guns are good for our republic is that mass killers are mentally ill. Making it easier to detain or commit those who seem to pose a danger and establishing a national database to track them would likely win broad support.

We also may agree to tougher, uniform background checks for gun buyers, but we shouldn't dream that this will stop deranged men intent on evil: The 17-year-old Columbine killers had an 18-year-old girlfriend buy their guns. The shooters in the Newtown and Portland incidents each stole their weapons from his mother.

Too-strict restrictions on the law-abiding won't help. As Mr. Goldberg put it: "Americans who are qualified to possess firearms shouldn't be denied the right to participate in their own defense."

A true leader would respect this while encouraging us to agree on ways we can best manage this right to ameliorate the tragedy of human brokenness.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com


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