In 1963 when the young black activist, John Lewis, who later became the distinguished Congressman from Georgia, was nearly beaten to death during a civil rights march in Alabama, the cautious John F. Kennedy knew he could not fail to push forcefully for meaningful legislation that would attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life.
Bending the curve of the epidemic of gun violence in a gun deranged society presents Barack Obama with the same kind of challenge. It has been suggested that the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre will be Obama’s defining moment as president; more significant than being the first African-American president, more important than hunting down bin Laden or dealing with the worst economy since the Great Depression the aftermath of the awful school shooting will define Obama’s legacy.
Read what Kennedy said about civil rights almost 50 years ago and apply the same words to Obama’s defining moment today.
“We face…a moral crisis as a country and a people,” Kennedy said in a television speech on June 11, 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”
Right as well as reality. Kennedy immediately introduced civil rights legislation that he did not live to see enacted, but the important political fact is that he seized the moment to declare that the Nation faced a “moral” crisis. No less a crisis confronts Obama’s Nation on the cusp of 2013.
So much of the initial reaction to Sandy Hook seems so small, so completely fanciful or so focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence. The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin suggests, amazingly, that armed guards should be posted in every school and every public place. Others tout arming teachers or bullet-proofing the backpacks of six-year-olds. Obama, already on record supporting reinstating the assault weapons ban, must know from reading the morning paper that such weapons are flying off the shelves as Americans beef up their arsenals in expectation that Congress might take a step that few really believe will have much impact. Thousands upon thousands of such weapons are already in circulation and even Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California politician with first-hand experience with gun violence, concedes that a new assault weapons ban won’t impact those weapons already abroad in the land. And the president’s one specific proposal so far, an interagency task force headed by Vice President Biden, seems so inside the beltway, so bureaucratic as to invite a Saturday Night Live parody.
A moral crisis, JFK knew, required more than a task force or a what will amount to a slightly better than symbolic ban on military-style weapons sitting in the corners of American closets. Obama must know this and that makes his Sandy Hook response his own moral crisis.
The assumption underlying all the small thinking about how to prevent the next school massacre is that our Nation cannot – ever – confront the real issue – too many guns and too few controls over who owns them and how they are bought. Australia, not exactly a nation know for its wild-eyed liberalism, decided to do something about assault weapons and launched a national “buy back” effort that has dramatically reduced the number of such weapons. Canada imposes a 28 day waiting period to purchase a weapon and then requires that two people vouch for the purchaser. We have certain requirements in place that require mental health reporting, but many states ignore the requirements. A serious moral response to Sandy Hook and Tucson and Columbine and on and on demands a serious and deeper look at what must be done to break the curve of violence.
As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections. In Scotland, after Dunblane, in Australia, after Tasmania, in Canada, after the Montreal massacre—in each case the necessary laws were passed to make gun-owning hard, and in each case… well, you will note the absence of massacre-condolence speeches made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, in comparison with our own President.”
In places like Idaho and Wisconsin all the disquieting talk about tougher controls on guns will be greeted with completely predictable outrage. The NRA will soon move from crisis management mode to Capitol Hill assault mode and the gun lobby’s champions in public office will fume against attacks on Second Amendment rights and, many American will hope, that the same old politics will replace images of funerals featuring tiny caskets. If such comes to pass Obama’s moral moment will recede and the belief that nothing can be done will continue to rule our streets and schools.
Serious – really serious – steps to control guns will be intolerable to many Americans. John Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963 carried just as unpalatable a message for many Americans in Alabama and Mississippi and many other places. Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general, that television images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham made him “sick” and convinced him that the South would never reform short of strong federal civil rights action.
As TIME noted in a 2007 essay on JFK’s slow conversion to the cause of civil rights, “Although Kennedy’s assassination five months [after his civil right speech] deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson’s Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage.”
Civil rights became a bipartisan national cause, not for everyone, of course, with dead-end southerners like Richard Russell fighting to the bitter end, but a national cause nonetheless. Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, understood both the politics and the morality of the moment and stood on the right side of history with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. The current moment begs for such leadership from both sides of the political divide.
No single law, no task force, not even essential improvements in mental health will stop American gun violence, but Barack Obama must know, as Sandy Hook Elementary enters American history in the same way Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham did a half-century ago, that half-measures aren’t adequate to confront a moral crisis. Unfortunately racial divide still exist in America since no single law could end that moral crisis either, but after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the United States was a different and better place. Such a moment is upon us again.