President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during… (Justin Lane / EPA )
Gun control was among the many issues President Obama and Mitt Romney addressed at Tuesday’s debate in New York. Both candidates showed support for the 2nd Amendment -- though Reason’s Jacob Sullum thought Obama’s "acknowledgment of armed self-defense as a constitutional right" was "belated" and "halfhearted" -- but agreed that this country must curb its culture of gun violence.
When I was in Chicago recently, a rather candid cab driver told me his son had been killed on Chicago’s streets. He said the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, promised to reduce violence when he was campaigning, but had failed to make good on his word. “Our kids are dying,” my cab driver told me. In the city’s toughest neighborhoods, he said it seems as though the cops don’t arrive to the scene of the crime until after it’s been cleaned up and the ambulance has driven away. They’re afraid, he continued, guessing that the officers are reluctant to go into the bad neighborhoods for fear of being outnumbered by the criminals.
So on Tuesday, when audience member Nina Gonzalez asked President Obama what his administration has done or will do to limit the availability of assault weapons, I was pleased he widened the lens beyond AK-47s with his response.
DEBATE LOG: Second Presidential Debate
“I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets,” he said. “And so what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence. Because frankly, in my home town of Chicago, there's an awful lot of violence and they're not using AK-47s. They're using cheap handguns.”
This very issue was addressed Thursday when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed a tax on guns and ammunition. If passed, it would help cover the cost of the city’s violence while possibly helping drive down the sales of deadly weapons and ammo, though that’s doubtful.
Because the problem isn’t necessarily guns. It’s the criminals who possess the guns that are the issue.
At Tuesday’s debate, both Obama and Romney agreed in their general philosophy for gun control. Create opportunity for children, and there’s less of a chance they’ll resort to crime later in life.
“We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the -- the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea,” said Romney.
“I think that one area we agree on is the importance of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they are less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts. […] We can make a difference in terms of ensuring that every young person in America, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, have a chance to succeed.” Obama replied.
Of course, providing children with opportunity isn’t an absolute solution. There’s also the issue of mental illness. “Jared Loughner and James Holmes both came from the much-vaunted two-parent household,” Andrew Satter, a video producer of the Center for American Progress, reminded us in a tweet highlighted on Daily Kos.
“We're not going to eliminate everybody who is mentally disturbed and we have got to make sure they don't get weapons,” Obama also argued. Exactly how, he did not really say. “We've done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we've got more to do when it comes to enforcement.”
But is a one-time background check really enough to ensure that firearms don’t end up in the wrong hands? Isn’t it worth considering that mental illness isn’t always a consistent condition, that certain disorders work in cycles and are sometimes dormant?
And, if my Chicago cab driver is right about cops avoiding the city’s toughest neighborhood for fear of their own lives, wouldn’t it be nice to know how the president would craft an enforcement plan that works?
And, gosh, wouldn’t it be great if Romney weighed in on this issue with a little more substance?
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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier