E.J. Dionne — Newtown’s call to reason


The heroic and inspiring role played by the families of the Sandy Hook massacre’s victims should not be used to create what would be a dangerously misleading narrative about how they changed the politics of guns.

The importance of last Thursday’s 68-31 vote in the Senate to proceed with debate on a bill to curb gun violence cannot be understated, and the testimonies from the citizens of Newtown were vital to that victory.

To say this is not to deny that many fights loom ahead. This was a vote to debate, not to pass, a bill — and the House of Representatives could prove an even larger obstacle to change than the Senate. We should not be blind to the skill of the weapon manufacturers’ lobby at the art of undercutting legislation through subtle amendments.

And this legislative round is unlikely to lead all the reforms that President Obama proposed, or that the country needs. It will be vital in the coming weeks to battle for additional measures beyond the background checks deal negotiated between Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., notably a ban on high-capacity magazines.

But make no mistake: The nation’s reaction to the killings in Newtown and the persistence of the advocates of sane firearms laws, including the families, have fundamentally altered the balance of power on guns. This is why 16 Republican senators joined nearly all Democrats in refusing to shut down the debate on a bill before it even started. It’s why abject timidity on the issue has been replaced by a grim determination.

The misunderstanding of why this happened, however, could set back the cause in the long run unless it is dispelled.

Because the accounts from the Sandy Hook families have been so moving and so wrenching, it is common to say that a gun bill is being carried along “on a wave of emotion.” There is nothing wrong with honest emotion, but the implication is that we are acting on guns in a way we would not act if our judgments were based on pure reason or a careful look at the evidence.

This has it exactly backward.

The truth is that the Newtown slaughter has finally moved the gun debate away from irrational emotions, ridiculous assumptions, manipulative rhetoric — and, on the part of politicians, debilitating terror at the alleged electoral reach of those who see any new gun regulations as a step into totalitarianism. These bills are being taken seriously precisely because we are finally putting emotion aside. We are riding a wave of reason.

Reason tells us that those who embrace the old slogan that “guns don’t kill people, people do” should support background checks because their very purpose is to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people, including criminals and those with deep psychological disturbances. Reason tells us that mass killers will kill fewer people if they cannot buy large magazines and have to keep reloading their weapons. Reason tells us that our freedom as Americans does not rest on the existence of an armed citizenry.

Who is really playing on emotions in this debate? Consider this gem from the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre: “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival.” The only thing the gun lobby has to sell is fear itself.

Sandy Hook snapped us back to a state of awareness about just how bizarre our gun debate has been. Sandy Hook’s courageous witnesses have reminded us of just how costly this irrationality has been. It matters that we understand the need to stay focused on the reasonable, the rational and the practical.

Gun reform is not a “cultural issue,” however often political commentators like to say it is. It has nothing to do with disrespect for rural ways of life — and bless Joe Manchin, a West Virginian to his core, for beginning to break the back of this exploitative justification for paralysis in the face of needless death. Manchin’s profoundly human and humane response to his meeting with Newtown families showed that the only cultural issue here is how to beat back the culture of violence.

This effort cannot end with one burst of legislating. The commitment and the organizing unleashed on a vicious day in December cannot abate. Our discussion of guns finally reflects a sober national maturity. We cannot return to childish evasion.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.