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home : opinions : commentary October 1, 2016

1/8/2013 1:01:00 PM
Commentary: History meets firearms as Obama legacy forms
David M. Shribman

Barack Obama’s determination to enact a gun control measure in the wake of the Connecticut shootings could transform his place in history.

Success, which is anything but assured, given the lobbies arrayed against him and the many failures of such measures, could upend more than two centuries of American tradition. It also could boost the president into the pantheon of liberal presidents, placing him beside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson as the principal progressives in modern American history.

This may seem discordant with the prevailing view of Obama as a reluctant warrior, a halting leader, an eager compromiser whose opponents are more vocal and more committed than he or his supporters. And on the surface, Obama’s accomplishments may seem to pale next to those of FDR and LBJ, both of whom passed multiple pieces of major legislation and whose programmatic principles fit neatly under the two-word thematic umbrellas of the New Deal and the Great Society.

Obama lacks such an overarching template, and his signature achievements -- overhauls of health care and financial services to accompany a potential victory on gun control -- would be more modest in number than those of Roosevelt (scores of alphabet-soup initiatives in just a hundred days, not to mention the Second New Deal) and Johnson (a war on poverty, housing programs, grand civil rights victories and sprawling educational enterprises).

All that is true. But with a victory on guns Obama would deserve an exalted place not because he could match those who came before him program for program or initiative for initiative but because, unlike them, he would have achieved major liberal goals that had eluded his predecessors for generations.

The first, of course, is a comprehensive overhaul of the health care system, which accounts for about one-seventh of the economy, arguably affecting more Americans more deeply than any measure promoted by any president ever.

This is not liberal propaganda, for if you listen to conservatives you will hear the identical argument made with regret: that Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are massive intrusions of government interference in the economy with little if any precedent. If that argument can be made persuasively by conservatives, and you can hear it almost daily on talk radio, then it can be made by liberals to elevate Obama among progressive presidents.

A victory on gun control would similarly set off an earthquake across the American political landscape.

Curtailing the availability of weapons has been a liberal goal since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, with a few conservatives, including former White House press secretary James Brady, joining the effort after the 1981 attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What Obama almost certainly will propose will be more far-reaching than any proposal on this subject by any previous president, and if he prevails he will have succeeded where other chief executives with liberal leanings, including Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have failed.

Although liberals would be reluctant to agree, a victory on gun control also would be a profound departure in American progressive history.

The story of American liberalism is the accumulation of rights. The nation began with brave Enlightenment-era talk about the rights of man, but that very phrase, part of the vocabulary of the late 18th century and the title of a Thomas Paine manifesto, specifically omitted half the population and, because of the presence of slavery in the new nation (and the decision to count slaves as three-fifths of a person), delegated these vaunted rights to a distinct minority of people who thought they lived in a land consecrated by majority rule.

The glory of American liberalism has been the extension of rights to those who did not own property, to those who were not male, to those who were not white, to those who were not straight.

But a major gun control victory for Obama -- awarded an “F” by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence after signing 2009 legislation permitting people to carry concealed weapons in national parks -- would be the first significant abrogation of American rights in our history.

Prohibition does not count; the 18th amendment did not curtail what had been a constitutionally protected right. Limiting gun rights, as NRA members argue, would do so.

Obama’s higher status would reflect his success in redeeming long-sought liberal measures. Though he would have only a few legislative achievements to his credit -- plus nudging same-sex marriage toward the mainstream -- the decades-long resistance to his initiatives would give them special standing.

Most of Roosevelt’s accomplishments, which include the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Wagner Act, the Works Progress Administration and others, were emergency responses to the Great Depression, not measures longed for by liberals for decades. Obama’s health care overhaul is arguably as profound an element of the American social contract as FDR’s Social Security Act of 1935 (and LBJ’s Medicare legislation of 1965). Roosevelt’s legislation creating the National Recovery Administration was struck down by the Supreme Court, while Obama’s health care legislation was upheld.

By the same token, many of Johnson’s Great Society initiatives grew out a sense that a nation as prosperous as mid-1960s America ought to share its bounty with the aged, hungry, poor and striving. Indeed, aside from civil rights, most of the Great Society projects were quickly conceived, not long-thwarted.

Obama has stirred bitter opposition from conservatives and bitter disappointment from liberals. Though conservatives believe he personifies unbounded liberalism, many of his putative allies believe he hasn’t pushed hard or far enough. If a major gun control measure is signed into law, history will argue otherwise.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2013
Article comment by: Carl Nye - Jerome

@ Phil

Apparently, Phil, to you, HOW someone (you don't know personally) dies makes a difference in how sad you should feel about it. But I'm not sure that distinction would apply to everyone else. Hundreds of people die in the US every day from many different causes, and the range of emotional reactions to their deaths probably extends from "so what"? to "OMG, how terrible!". A sudden automobile death is no more preventable than a drive-by shooting or a school massacre. And I bet the families of the lost ones from the car accidents in the last hour feel just as sad as the families of the Newtown kids.

Just wondering - how do you feel about the on-going murders in Syria?

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Article comment by: Phil Falbo

Carl, you need to get out more, really.

You have the temerity to try to compare willful mass murder to automobile accidents?

Take a Logic course.


And, obviously, you have not noticed you can't smoke almost anywhere in public or that some companies won't hire smokers or that smokers pay higher insurance premiums?

Do you know how much cigarettes are taxed?

There is the outrage.

And, smoking is a personal choice.

But try to keep guns from crazy people and we get inane questions like yours as if they make sense.

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013
Article comment by: Carl Nye - Jerome

Just to get some perspective on the Newtown reactions-

Each and every hour of the day, 56 people die from tobacco related illnesses. (CDC figures).

Each and every day, 93 people die in automobile accidents. (Wikipedia figures).

Are these deaths any less of a loss to the families concerned? Where is the associated outrage with these death rates?

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013
Article comment by: Veritas Semper

If Obama's legacy were to include increasing the deficit almost exponentially over those that came before him, to force Americans to purchase something that the goverment has no right to force them to purchase and to destroy an Ammendment to the Bill of Rights, that's a legacy far more in line with the Hugo Chavez's, Fidel Casto's and any number of failed European leaders. Far better for him to go quietly into the sunset having done absolutely nothing else than what hes done thus far.

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013
Article comment by: Really Really

The issue is mental health not gun control. Once a person is over 18 you can't force them to take their medication.

Their families are left to take care of mentally ill person with nowhere to turn. Classic example the Mingus Center closing.

Okay all you liberals what is your solution?

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013
Article comment by: O Z

Well look at this! In the mits of all this gun control crap, and the Prez saying he may make his own laws. Now, he passes a law that will give him lifetime secret service protection. This law went away in the 90'2 by Pres Bush. Seems funny how a man who wants to take guns away from people now wants to be protected by them for life???? Come on Lib's lets hear it!

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013
Article comment by: Ed Wood

Shucks, thems some big words Mister Shribman. On the plus side, they demonstrate the wild delusions and pitiful historical ignorance of the right wing and are easily refuted. Background checks and assault rifle bans would be the "First significant abrogation of American rights in our history?" You've got to be kidding. Just a few historical highlights:

1. Slavery enshrined in the U.S. Constitution - Art. 1, Sec. 9 Art. 1, Sec. 2 Art. 4, Sec. 2.

2. Native American genocide, e.g. Indian Removal Act of 1830 (and many subsequent laws) - thanks Andrew Jackson.

3. Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus. The Writ is protected in the U.S. Constitution (Art. 1, Sec. 9). It allows citizens to challenge the lawfulness of their incarceration, requires the government to prove that the decision to lock somebody up is legally justified. Lincoln abolished it by executive order in 1862 as a tool to suppress the rebellion then ignored Supreme Court ruling that declared it unconstitutional.

3. Women denied vote until 1919 (See 19th Amendment).

4. Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language." You know, like when you call the President a communist dictator.

5. Jim Crow, lynching. In addition to segregation, the U.S. version of apartheid, nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Talk about a "significant abrogation."

6. Patriot Act of 2001: Phone wiretaps and email monitoring allowed without court order, indefinite detentions of immigrants searches of homes and businesses without the owner’s or the occupant’s permission or knowledge, among other obvious civil liberty violations.

U.S. History: Please read about it, Mr. Shribman before you write any more silly, hysterical statements about President Obama's attempt to impose reasonable gun control measures. Nobody is trying to take your precious guns away and even if they were, it would hardly be the first significant abrogation of civil rights in American history.

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Just A Queation .....

Which is your choice?

Both sides of the gun question are bringing up
two good solutions:

1: Give officers zero seconds to be on site to
to stop shooters before the shooter fire their
first shot, or start any bad deeds.

2. Give all people the option to bear arms (as is
their right/duty) to protect themselves. For in
fact our officers quickest response time is
measured and recorded in minutes (approx
4 to 20 minutes) before they put a shooter
in check. (By the way tis is not a put down on
our officers...they are working with the tools
we supply them.)

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Just so You know

Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law on December 8, 1993

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Mary Ellen Dunn

As a member of the 'howling and squeeling liberal horde' I would like to make some statements.
I'm not opposed to guns or in favor of guns. My feeling about them for myself is indifferent. I know many people who appreciate shooting and hunting and would not wish to detract from those pastimes. Having a gun for protection also seems pretty legitimate.
There are many arguments put forth by the NRA that I feel make sense as well as many by those favoring more gun regulation. I really believe that private gun sales, mental health screening and gun shows are areas that should be seriously reviewed for reform and 'tightening up'.
My beef with the gun lobby is that they seem so unwilling to bend. I believe all of the groups should have a seat at the table and a lot of discussion needs to be opened up.
I don't believe anyone in the country was not seriously saddened by the occurrences that took place in Connecticut. I also don't believe that this President is in favor of taking away anyone's second amendment rights. There is a lot of pressure at the moment to address the issue because of these horrible recent events.
Maybe we can begin to seriously look at the many issues that surround these events and respectfully address each other's concerns.

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Phil Falbo

@ Brian: your comment demonstrates your hypocrisy.

Your opinion of me is none of my business.

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: nutso fasst

"We can spend over $1 Trillion dollars to firebomb camel riding nomads in the middle east and Afganistan[sic] but the GOP finds it unreasonable for American families to want to be treated fairly by insurance companies."

Ironic, isn't it, that the GOP would find the Democrats' embrace of corporatism unreasonable?

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Danny Smith

Gun control is not the answer and will do nothing but create criminals out of innocent people.
Repost: Sen. Diane Feinstein announced today a new comprehensive gun bill that she will introduce when the new senate convenes. Here are exerpts taken from a DOJ study that contradict just about everything that she believes about guns.
On her website, Feinstein claims that a study for the DOJ found that the 1994 ban resulted in a 6.7 percent decrease in murders. To the contrary, this is what the study said: “At best, the assault weapons ban can have only a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons and magazines were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders. Our best estimate is that the ban contributed to a 6.7 percent decrease in total gun murders between 1994 and 1995. . . . However, with only one year of post-ban data, we cannot rule out the possibility that this decrease reflects chance year-to-year variation rather than a true effect of the ban. Nor can we rule out effects of other features of the 1994 Crime Act or a host of state and local initiatives that took place simultaneously.”
From the imposition of Feinstein’s “assault weapon” ban (Sept. 13, 1994) through the present, the number of “assault weapons” has risen dramatically. For example, the most common firearm that Feinstein considers an “assault weapon” is the AR-15 rifle, the manufacturing numbers of which can be gleaned from the BATFE’s firearm manufacturer reports, available here. From 1995 through 2011, the number of AR-15s—all models of which Feinstein’s new bill defines as “assault weapons”—rose by over 2.5 million. During the same period, the nation’s murder rate fell 48 percent, to a 48-year low. According to the FBI, 8.5 times as many people are murdered with knives, blunt objects and bare hands, as with rifles of any type

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: My Guns

are safe!!!! I lined all of them up and told them If they shoot anyone without me pulling the trigger I'd take a cutting torch to them

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013
Article comment by: Brian Carlson

Phil you have won the John Bond Award for downing everything people say and having no solutions yourself.

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