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Editorial: If Not Now, When; A Tipping Point for Gun Control

Five of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history occurred during the past 15 years, and four of them in the past five years, according to a list compiled by The Washington Post that appeared in the Sunday Valley News. To date, this accelerating change in the climate of mass violence has been largely ignored by national political leaders.

But the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown, Conn., last week has been characterized by gun control advocates as a “tipping point” that might at long last lead Congress to impose new restrictions on guns. We’re not so sure. But if not now, when?

There are sensible measures that can be enacted without materially infringing on the rights of gun owners to hunt or shoot recreationally. One is to reinstitute the ban on sales of assault weapons that was allowed to lapse in 2004. Another is to limit the capacity of magazines. A third is to strengthen the system of background checks for gun purchases. None of these restrictions individually or collectively would guarantee an end to mass gun violence. But they might at least limit the number of such attacks and hold down the body count when they do occur.

President Obama has been criticized for not proposing gun control initiatives during his first term, and there is some justice in this criticism. This inaction did not surprise us, as it was clear from our editorial board meeting with him during the 2008 campaign that he has a full appreciation for the complexity and nuance of gun ownership in America. And given that there was no appetite in Congress for new gun restrictions, any attempt to enact them would have been a prescription for a noisy and pointless wrangle. But political leadership consists not only of recognizing the limits of what’s possible, but also of seizing opportunity when it presents itself.

Obama’s remarks at the memorial service in Newtown Sunday night suggest that he understands that this is a potentially transformative moment in the long national debate about what the Second Amendment means and how it is to be understood in the 21st century.

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I have been reflecting on this the last few days,” the president said. “If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.”

There may be more in the subtext of those remarks than in the text itself. Guns are not the whole of the problem. Violence is in the very cultural air that Americans breathe every day, from news reports to the general run of movie and television fare to video games. This is not to suggest that any particular act of mass violence is touched off by any of these things, because the psychology is far more complicated than that. But a culture of violence cannot help but coarsen our communal life and diminish our humanity.

So, yes, we need to change, and not just our laws. “What choice do we have?” the president asked in Newtown. Fortunately, we have the choice of moral courage.