We certainly agree with Vice President Joe Biden that the massacre last month in Newtown, Connecticut, that took the lives of twenty elementary school children “touched the heart of the American people so profoundly” that it “requires immediate, urgent action.” And we would hope Congress and the president can avoid the partisan bickering that has caused so much gridlock in Washington and reach a solution to the problem of firearm violence in America.
Having said that, we are troubled by a growing sense that the president feels he should assume authority to act without Congress – despite Congress’s clear prerogatives in the matter and constitutional provisions generally granting the right of Americans to own weapons.
Mr. Biden was appointed by President Obama to head a task force charged with the job of coming up with proposals for dealing with gun violence. Here is some of what the vice president recently had to say:
The public wants us to act…. There is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people, there is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more, than the visual image people have of little 6-year-old kids riddled – not shot with a stray bullet – riddled with bullet holes in their classroom. And the pubic demands we speak to it….
The president is going to act…. There are executive orders, executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet, but we’re compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and all the rest of the Cabinet members….
I’m convinced we can affect the well-being of millions of Americans, and take thousands of people out of harm’s way, if we act responsibly…. And as the president said, if our actions result in only saving one life, they are worth taking.
If this all seems reminiscent of the old utilitarian view about the ends justifying the means, it is. And we don’t think the president or his vice president are talking about emergency situations requiring a temporary waiving of the rules.
Consider the observations of Senator Dick Durbin, a leading Democrat and powerful member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Durbin said he would prefer that a solution to gun violence come through the normal congressional process rather than by dint of the president issuing an executive order. Significantly, however, he added that he was leery of the power to block legislation wielded by the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, against whom many congressmen would not stand up. So he said he would support Mr. Obama if the president does issues executive orders to stem gun violence: “Whatever it takes to keep our streets and schools safe, I’ll support.”
In other words, it matters little if it can’t be done in the prescribed way since almost anything goes if some of us think a particular action should be taken.
What heightens our concern is that this new development comes with a context. President Obama threatened to gut congressional procedures in order to enact Obamacare when it appeared he could not otherwise get it done. He acted directly in the face of congressional power when he summarily, by executive order, revised the enforcement of provisions of federal immigration law concerning the deportation of certain illegal aliens – even though Congress specifically declined to amend the law in that way. And after the Senate blocked action on his nomination of three federal officials, he appointed them anyway as “recess appointments” – after unilaterally redefining the meaning of the Senate being in recess.
We are as appalled by the spate of senseless violence as are President Obama and Vive President Biden. But if we are to deal with it in a way that is not corrosive of the system of government that has made our country the envy of the rest of the world, we need to be exceedingly careful when we throw longstanding rules and practices out the window.