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Editorial: Gun Control Package

A ban on assault weapons and limitations on high-capacity magazines no doubt will be the most contentious of the proposals included in President Obama’s comprehensive gun control plan, and the hardest to get through Congress.

That’s the disappointing reality. But it’s worth noting that at least some analysts believe the prior ban on assault weapons, in effect from 1994 to 2004, was so flawed as to be easily evaded and was thus largely ineffective. And as The New York Times noted Thursday, since there is no general agreement on what constitutes an assault weapon, it might be very difficult to write legislation banning them that actually accomplishes the purpose.

Even if these most controversial provisions of the Obama plan fail, though, the rest of the package contains initiatives that hold real promise of cutting down on gun violence — the everyday kind as well as the mass shootings that have horrified the nation in recent months. They also might have a better chance of passing in Congress.

We say “cutting down” on gun violence because this particular plague is not going to be eradicated. For one thing, American civilians possess somewhere between 250 million and 300 million firearms, and in the words of Dr. Garen J. Wintermute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, “Those firearms are not going to go away anytime soon.” For another, the courts have firmly established the right to private ownership of firearms through their interpretations of the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

But the Obama plan contains some sensible steps. The main one is to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and extend it to cover unlicensed sellers at gun shows and other kinds of private sales, which account for about 40 percent of gun purchases. Currently only federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks through the computerized database, which, since it was established in 1996, has prevented 1.5 million sales to felons, people convicted of domestic abuse and others prohibited from having guns. The president also directed law enforcement agencies to take tougher action against those who evade the background check system.

Obama is also asking Congress to address the issue of so-called “straw purchasers” — middlemen who can pass the background checks and who then move the weapons along to criminals or others who can’t obtain them legally.

While these proposals don’t address semiautomatic assault-style rifles or the lethality of large magazines in particular, they do cover the sales of both those weapons and handguns, which after all are involved far more often in gun violence than long guns. The FBI reports that in 2011, 6,220 people were killed by handguns and 323 by rifles.

And these provisions fall under the heading of “enforcing-the-laws-we-have-before-making-new-ones” and targeting the criminal element rather than law-abiding gun owners, which together constitute the longtime mantra of the gun lobby. No doubt the National Rifle Association will find a reason to oppose expanding and strengthening the background check system, but there’s at least an opportunity for a cringing congressman to take political cover while doing the right thing.

Speaking of which, Americans who are appalled at the continuing blood bath have their role to play as the scene shifts to Congress. Now is the time to make your thoughts known to your senators and representatives, as well as to consider what other individual and collective action might be brought to bear to bring this problem under control. As we have noted previously, this is not only a problem of guns and laws. Appalling crimes take place in a cultural context, and each of us has an obligation to consider whether our choices of movies, television shows and video games, and what we permit our children to watch and play, in some way contribute to feeding the violent beast.