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Shields and Brooks on Obama's Second Term

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - January 18, 2013

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JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us finally tonight to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

I want to go back earlier in the week, and let's start with guns. I want to know first, Mark -- David, are you surprised by the scale of the president's proposal and surprised by the personal commitment that he seemed to put into it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so.

I was surprised by the assault weapons part. I knew there would be the waiting list and some of the other things, the magazine stuff, but it was pretty comprehensive.

And it's worth pointing out that this was an issue that Democrats spent 10 years ignoring, and for good reasons -- or good political reasons, anyway, not good substantive reasons -- which was that it was seen as a cultural issue which alienated you from rural voters and it hurts Democrats -- or hurts Democrats who are in red states.

I still think that's basically true. But he went out there pretty comprehensively, and I would say more boldly than would have been politically -- a simple political calculation. And I think they are generally sensible reforms. So, I guess I sort of salute him. I have doubts about how much good it will actually do, but I think it was sort of impressive in its nonpolitical nature.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about -- before you get to the whether it will go anywhere, what do you think just about the scope of it and the way he did it?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the president did it well.

I thought -- I think it's realistic. I think it is attainable. But it's not unambitious. And I think he's -- as you put it in your question, he has put his own commitment on the line. And I think that's the test.

JEFFREY BROWN: So now you think it's not unattainable? I should put that positively.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think it's attainable?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't know.

David described the history and the context of it. But, you know, I do think that Newtown changed it. And I think Newtown changed it in a way that none of us really understands. And it is because of victims and the teachers. It is just that setting. It is just -- it's such an absolutely unimaginable setting.

And I just -- just on a personal note, on April 9, 1968, I was in Ebenezer Baptist Church when Martin Luther King's funeral -- a remarkable event. And two months later, I was working in California in Robert Kennedy's campaign when he was shot.

Martin Luther King was 39. Robert Kennedy was 42. That's -- 42 years after their being shot, 1,260,703 Americans died in firearms -- by firearms. In the total history of the United States in every war, in the Revolutionary, all the world's wars, 659,000 Americans have died in combat, twice as many in one-fifth the time.

And I think the president has the capacity and the standing at this point to make that case that we -- that this is not American exceptionalism, when we have five times -- four times as many people killed in this country as in the next 21 richest countries in the world in one year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but you -- you can cite the numbers, and yet the NRA and others opponents came out ahead of this to say nothing would happen. They came out the minute he was done speaking.

And then the White House says, yes, it's going to be hard, but we think we might be able to do something.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

First, it is always striking how young they were, FDR -- I mean, MLK and -- but, listen, I support the things, all the laws. If I were a member of the Congress, I would vote for it all. But the data is very problematic for the proponents.

We have had terrible research, in part because the NRA prevents good research. But the research we have doesn't suggest these things make a huge difference. We have had a big bill in '68. We had the Brady bill. We have had other bills. In general, when you look at the broad survey of the research, it is very hard to see big differences.

There are some areas where you do see differences. Some of the magazines do reduce en masse killing. But the level of murders, it doesn't really change much. Where I think it is most fertile to make progress, most gun violence is suicides. And if you could -- and a lot of those suicides are impulsive.

And if you can delay people's access to guns by a week, you really can do potentially some good in preventing some suicides, especially senior citizens. So I think there are some possibilities. The danger there, again -- and this is all problematic -- most people who kill themselves with guns do it with handguns, which are not really under discussion here.

And so the social science data, I think, is reasonably sound not that -- not that it doesn't work, but it doesn't work a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is your sense of whether the White House understands the politics of this? I mean, whether there's still many questions about the effectiveness, I mean, the real -- the effectiveness of the law, but then there is the politics.

MARK SHIELDS: To question whether Barack Obama and those around him understand the politics, I think, is like asking whether Henry VIII knew anything about food.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, these are people who have mastered -- I mean, he was reelected president of the United States with over a majority of the vote, with an economy that can only be described as suffering and troubled.

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