Lessons from Oberlin

At all levels of government, the nation needs politicians with enough courage to stand up to the gun lobby


The failure of the U.S. Congress to enact sensible gun control legislation — even universal background checks — has pushed the battle for public safety and gun rights to the state and local level, often with equally disappointing results.

It’s happening, for example, in Colorado, where two state senators, one a former police chief, have been recalled for leading the fight for expanding background checks and limiting gun magazines to 15 rounds. And it’s even happening in Oberlin, Ohio, where the city council, under pressure and the threat of litigation, this week rescinded, by a 4-3 vote, an ordinance prohibiting firearms in city parks.

Oberlin City Council members should have stood their ground and asserted their home rule rights. Instead, they took a powder. The local law conflicts with state statute, and Oberlin, southwest of Cleveland, could have lost a costly court battle.

Still, it’s unfortunate that the council allowed itself to be bullied. In a separate action, it asked the Ohio General Assembly to amend state law to allow cities to regulate guns in public parks. Without question, local governments should have the authority to take such measures to promote public safety within their own borders.

But the larger problem is feckless local, state, and federal elected officials who continue to bow to a well-financed gun lobby, instead of carrying out the will of most Americans.

Gun control measures enjoy wide-spread public support, but a lack of orchestrated efforts to advance them have made it easy for well-organized, single-issue groups such as the National Rifle Association to get their way.

The failure of Congress to act — even after the massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December — has pushed President Obama to expand, by executive order, background checks for machine guns and sawed-off shotguns and ban the reimportation of military guns.

Even these modest measures have drawn fire from gun rights group, who have opposed all reasonable regulations, including comprehensive background checks, bans on assault rifles, and limits on the size of magazine clips.

In Ohio, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, considered a key Republican vote, has opposed comprehensive background checks, even though most Ohioans support such measures. Mr. Portman helped block bipartisan legislation that would have closed some dangerous loopholes in federal law.

On Monday, a former Navy reservist went on a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, slaughtering 12 people. Reports initially said the 34-year-old gunman carried an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. Authorities later said he more likely had a shotgun, and possibly a pistol he obtained inside.

The AR-15 is the same type of rifle used in last year’s mass shooting at Newtown, as well as in a shooting spree at a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 people. Whatever the investigation into the Navy Yard shootings reveals, it is unlikely to deter gun rights advocates from pursuing their uncompromising agenda.

The gunman, Aaron Alexis, had shown signs of mental illness, raising again the issue of improving the nation’s woefully inadequate care and treatment of the mentally ill. That may be the only issue that gun control and gun rights advocates agree on.

The nation needs more politicians like Colorado Senate President John Morse, a former police chief, who put his career on the line to do the right thing on gun control. Without them, the voice of most Americans won’t be heard, either in Washington or Oberlin, Ohio.