Jules Witcover

President Obama, in his poignant remarks in Newtown, Conn., to the grieving parents and friends of the 20 little boys and girls and six adults slaughtered in the grade-school massacre, pledged to use "whatever power this office holds" to at last end such violence. But how? And when?

After the president's apparent tearing-up in his first public comments at the White House, his press secretary, Jay Carney, dutifully dodged, saying he was "sure" there would be "a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don't think today is that day." Just exactly what a presidential mouthpiece thought about when it would be proper to take action on this national tragedy was colossally presumptuous.

The catastrophe cried out for much more than expressed sympathy, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasted no time saying the obvious: that the time was long overdue for the president to stand up to the American gun lobby, and call for a halt to the sale, ownership and carrying of assault weapons made for the battlefield, not the streets and the schoolrooms of America.

With pressures mounting and Carney saying only action would be taken "in coming weeks," The Washington Post finally reported that Vice President Joe Biden would head a cabinet effort to formulate the administration response.

Obama in his Newtown remarks had danced around the point, asking: "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say such violence on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"

That veiled reference to the National Rife Association and its allies' defense of gun ownership as a bastion of personal as well as national defense was all the president was willing to say then. Perhaps he was deferring to the sensitivities of the grieving community he was addressing. But Carney seemed to be lecturing that in such a time of of national mourning, it would somehow be a breach of etiquette to point fingers.

Many other citizens, however, have cried out that there could be no better time to rally the aroused and revolted public to action. One who thought so was Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

She declared that she will introduce a bill when the new Senate convenes next month to restore the law she authored in 1994 and that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. It woud ban, she said, "the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession" of assault weapons, as well as "big (ammunition) clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets." But even Feinstein was saying her ban would not be "retroactively, but prospectively," meaning she would stop short of targeting such weapons already in circulation.

At a minimum, however, a nationwide program of voluntary surrender of such killing devices, perhaps by government repurchase, might begin to answer that glaring problem, while certainly incurring the wrath of the NRA. Such an approach would answer Obama's question of whether "the politics are too hard" to take head-on the NRA's lobbying powerhouse and its ludicrous defense that "guns don't kill people, people do."

Notably, several NRA members in the Senate, all Democrats, called for restoration of the ban, but no Republicans. Some 31 Republican senators invited to discuss the matter on NBC News' Sunday talk show declined to join a roundtable on the timely issue. The whole wearying debate over guns brings to mind Liza Doolittle's lament to Henry Higgins: "Words, words, I'm so sick of words. Is that all you blighters can do?"

In this holiday season, some may think that it would be bad taste as well as bad politics for the president to throw a damper on the spirit of St. Nicholas by declaring war on the gun lobby. So the country will have to wait for the president to offer specifics on how he intends to deal with this most heart-wrenching example of the price America pays for its home-grown gun culture.


World - Fine Words, Delayed Action | News of the World