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Editorial: Put gun genie back in bottle

Five days after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 20 first-graders and six adults at the school dead, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a task force that will come up with “concrete proposals” for curbing gun violence. Obama said he expected the proposals in January and that he will have more to say on the subject in his State of the Union address that month.

In ordinary times, mention of a task force and another speech would scarcely qualify as news. But many Americans are fervently hoping that this time will be different and that our elected officials — and millions of the rest of us — won’t simply play lip service to the need for change and then move on.

It is imperative that President Obama use the bully pulpit to keep this issue alive in the coming months, and that he remain personally engaged in the outcome. He was largely missing in action on this topic during his first term. With re-election behind him, he has an opportunity now to shape a legacy as a president who finally stood up to the gun lobby, acted to reduce the level of violence in this country and to address its multiple causes.

At a minimum, the newly named task force should push for reinstating the lapsed assault weapons ban and should close the loopholes that allow the easy purchase of weapons at gun shows.

In recent days, several pro-gun senators — some citing the pressure they’re getting from constituents and in some instances their own family members — have signaled a willingness to look at sensible gun restrictions. That’s an encouraging sign. This is a time to welcome the input of hunters and other responsible gun owners, not to demonize them. Their support is crucial if meaningful change is to occur.

Today, the National Rifle Association is expected to make its first statements since the Newtown shootings. Since Friday, the NRA, knowing a public relations disaster when it sees one, has been silent.

It’s likely the NRA, as it has in the past, will argue that we don’t need new laws, we need to enforce the gun-control laws we already have. And the group may climb aboard the bandwagon of those saying that the real issue is better identification and treatment of people who are mentally ill and prone to violence.

We agree that mental health issues should be addressed, especially questions of funding and access. But in truth, people who suffer with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence; experts say only about 4 percent of violent acts in the U.S. are caused by people with mental disorders. For the gun lobby to bemoan the failings and shortfalls of this country’s mental health system — while resisting restrictions to the availability of military-style, lethal weapons — is disingenuous and irresponsible.

It’s been said many times in recent days that gun violence in this country is a complex problem requiring a complex, multi-pronged set of solutions. That’s true. But guns — and the ease of getting them — must remain front and center on the agenda.

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