It took an ordinary citizen, Nina Gonzalez, to stand up at the presidential debate on Tuesday to raise what has been a phantom issue on the campaign trail: the lack of effective gun controls and any meaningful political discussion about this crisis. Every year, more than 30,000 people are shot and killed in this country.
Ms. Gonzalez politely asked President Obama whatever happened to his pledge four years ago to fight for renewal of the ban on assault weapons. That ban, which prohibits the manufacture of semiautomatic firearms for civilian use, was put in place in 1994 and expired in 2004. It was a pledge that Mr. Obama and his administration never made a priority despite the many horrific mass shootings during his term.
The current campaign is now focused on a handful of states where mention of gun control is considered politically toxic. At the debate, Mr. Obama said he wanted to get a “broader conversation” going on reducing violence, and “part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced.” That kind of tepid talk will do nothing to push this crucial legislation through Congress.
Mitt Romney was far worse. As the recently anointed candidate of the National Rifle Association, he flatly opposes renewal of the assault weapons ban, even though as governor of Massachusetts he signed a statewide ban in 2004 after the federal 10-year ban lapsed. In the statehouse, Mr. Romney unequivocally denounced the military-style weapons as “instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.” That was then. Now, on the national hustings, Mr. Romney says nothing of the sort, and he tries to portray the state ban as a law that was pro-sportsman, too.
Both candidates tried lamely to connect various family, school and social factors to the murders made easy by inadequate and nonexistent gun control laws. In truth, gun laws are being loosened, not strengthened, by state legislatures, often with bipartisan support. Among the worst measures are permits for carrying guns in colleges and other public places and the atrocious “stand your ground” laws that basically permit machismo fantasists to shoot to kill when they feel threatened.
Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney shows any interest in discussing this threat to public safety. The scourge includes 4.5 million firearms sold annually in the nation and more than one million people killed by guns in the past four decades. Research shows that among 23 populous, high-income nations, 80 percent of firearm deaths occurred in the United States, where citizens suffer homicide rates 6.9 times higher than in the other nations.
This nation needs sane and effective gun control policies, including the assault weapons ban, not political obfuscation. Whichever candidate wins, his term is certain to be marked by the shooting deaths of tens of thousands more Americans.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on October 19, 2012, on page A30 of the New York edition with the headline: The Issue That Goes Ignored.