WASHINGTON — In a quieter time, what President Joe Biden said on Feb. 14 about his hopes for combating the scourge of violence in our country might have been much bigger news.

“Today,” Biden said in a statement marking the third anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which took the lives of 14 students and three teachers, “I am calling on Congress to enact common-sense gun law reforms, including requiring background checks on all gun sales, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and eliminating immunity for gun manufacturers who knowingly put weapons of war on our streets.”

Those are serious and necessary steps toward sanity for a nation that has just 4 percent of the world’s population but 46% of its civilian-owned firearms — an estimated 393 million guns, according to the Small Arms Survey.

That Biden’s plea did not arouse more praise or more controversy reflects, in part, the president’s own intense and appropriate focus on putting the battle to defeat the covid-19 pandemic — and reverse its economic consequences — ahead of everything else.

Biden’s agenda

There is also the sheer size of the rest of Biden’s agenda, including climate, infrastructure, political reform, immigration, racial justice and a new approach to foreign policy. And Donald Trump’s Senate trial for inciting violence at the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 ended on the same weekend as Biden’s announcement on guns.

But what led up to Jan. 6 implicates the gun debate. Yes, we need to embrace the entirely sensible steps Biden proposed. (Ask yourself: Who needs an assault weapon? Why should disturbed people and domestic abusers have access to guns?) But we must also understand that the extremism of the gun imperialists is directed against democracy itself.

I use that phrase “gun imperialists” to distinguish between the radicalized movement that claims to represent all gun owners and gun owners themselves — most of whom, according to many surveys, support reasonable steps to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

The gun imperialists believe that the Second Amendment, as they wrongly interpret it, takes priority over every other right. They cheer the anti-democratic concept advanced by Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani at the rally that sparked the Jan. 6 violence: “trial by combat.”

There is a long history in our country, going back to a successful effort to overthrow Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War in the name of white supremacy, of using guns to defeat and silence political opponents.

Back in 2015, during President Barack Obama’s administration, Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, declared: “The Second Amendment was designed for people just like the president and his administration.” He went on: “Yes, our guns are in our hands for people like those in our government right now that think they want to go tyrannical on us. We’ve got something for ’em.”

Trump himself has long trafficked in “Second Amendment” threats of violence. “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment,” Trump said at an August 2016 rally. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people -maybe there is, I don’t know.” (I confess it still enrages me how many people were ready to write off Trump back then as merely “entertaining.”)

Stay-at-home orders

And have we forgotten the rally in Lansing, Michigan, last April? During protests against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders in response to the pandemic, dozens, including some carrying firearms, entered the state Capitol building and demanded entry into the House chamber. Whitmer was later the object of a failed kidnapping plot, organized by a group allegedly involved in those protests.

It was only last month, five days after the violence in Washington, that the Michigan Capitol Commission finally voted to ban open-carry weapons from the statehouse.

“Protesters who strap rifles to their chests and show up to rallies wearing tactical gear but not masks are not defending themselves against any actual, credible threats,”wrote Robyn Thomas,executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “What they are doing is chilling free speech, and . . . endangering the lives of everyone in their communities.”

Chilling free speech. That’s exactly what the gun imperialists are trying to do. They have enjoyed enormous success in intimidating politicians who should know better — in the wake of one massacre of innocents after another — into opposing even modest enhancements of our gun regulations.

It’s dispiriting that the slaughter of students couldn’t galvanize the political class to action. But perhaps the violence and intimidation we have seen over the past year has finally unmasked the extremists for who they are. It’s time for rationality and democracy to prevail.

— Twitter: @EJDionne.

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