Rarely has the political class whipped itself into a lather that has abated so quickly. After the Newtown, Conn., massacre, so many invested so much hope in President Barack Obama's pledge to "use whatever power this office holds" to pass new gun-control laws.
The president has certainly done his part. He has held rallies. He has used children as props. He has held events with parents of the little victims of Newtown. He has shamed the nation for its alleged forgetfulness over the terrible events of that day.
Yet the needle of public opinion is moving the wrong way. CBS News found that support for stricter gun laws dropped from 57 percent to 47 percent, and CNN from 52 percent to 43 percent. The headline on a CNN story on the latest polling was titled "Polls Suggest Congress Might Have Waited Too Long on Gun Control." It has waited all of four months.
But the assault-weapons ban has been deep-sixed by Democrats in the Senate. Same with any limit on the size of magazines. The argument now is all about increasing the reach of background checks, although any bill that can pass Congress will be much less extensive than the president or his supporters would like.
The gun-control debate has shown the president again to be hopelessly detached as a legislative mechanic and ineffectual as a shaper of public opinion. Before writing rhetorical checks that his own party's majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, couldn't cash, the president might have at least consulted with the wily old son of a gun about what was plausible and adjusted accordingly.
It is true that 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks. Who can be against background checks? Heck, even the National Rifle Association wants states to keep more complete records of who is forbidden from purchasing guns.
But it gets complicated quickly when you try to control almost every transfer of a gun. Sen. Chuck Schumer's current version of the bill would forbid a "temporary transfer" to a friend for target shooting if the range is not "owned or occupied by a duly incorporated organization organized for conservation purposes or to foster proficiency in firearms." Got it?
Surely, we can figure out a way to do more at gun shows. But despite the obsession with them, gun shows are beside the point. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "In 1997, among state inmates possessing a gun, fewer than 2 percent bought their firearm at a flea market or gun show, about 12 percent from a retail store or pawnshop and 80 percent from family, friends, a street buy or an illegal source."
Gun control always founders on the paradox that it is possible to write new laws for the law-abiding but difficult or impossible to reach criminals who don't care about laws. Michigan has required a permit to purchase a handgun since 1927. The rule has evidently made no impression on those bent on doing harm to others in Detroit or Flint.
The gun-control debate has subtly shifted away from Newtown even though the president keeps bringing his case back to that atrocity. Nothing that happened in Newtown had anything to do with background checks. No background-check law will ever prevent someone like Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza's mother from buying guns unless the parents of children with autismlike symptoms are to be banned from owning firearms.
The president's push for new gun laws looks, at this juncture, like a complete fizzle. He has failed to sway red-state Democrats and failed to maintain the heightened public support for new gun-control laws. The most concrete effect of his advocacy has been, if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, to stoke increased gun purchases on fears that the government wants to ban guns. He set out to lead a great crusade for gun control and ended up the best friend the gun industry ever had.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)