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The New York Times's first front-page editorial in 95 years calls gun violence a "national disgrace"

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The New York Times is running an editorial on its front page today for the first time since 1920, calling for tighter gun control in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre:

The top half of the Times' front page
The front-page editorial, the first since 1920.
(The New York Times)

"It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency," the editorial reads in part, later continuing: "It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition."

Why putting an editorial on the front page still matters

Most people read the Times online, where there's no way of seeing where the editorial was placed, rather than in print. But this is still a powerful symbolic move, because a print front page still remains one of the ultimate statements of a news organization's values.

For American newspapers, putting an editorial on the front page, rather than on pages generally set aside for opinion pieces, has been generally taboo for more than 50 years. The last time the Times ran an editorial on the front page, reporter Ravi Somaiya writes, it was to oppose the nomination of Warren G. Harding for president.

While this is an unusual step for the Times, it's in line with a growing trend of front-page editorials at other newspapers, particularly on issues of major local importance.

The Detroit Free Press used its front page to call for an auto industry bailout in 2008. The Harrisburg Patriot-News published a front-page editorial on Penn State's child sexual abuse scandal in 2011. The Arizona Republic has called for immigration reform. The Indianapolis Star took up its entire front page with an editorial headlined "Fix This Now" about the state's controversial religious freedom law that was widely seen as anti-LGBTQ.

The Times is a national newspaper, and putting the editorial on the front page makes a statement that this is an issue of overriding national importance.

The Times is essentially calling for an assault weapons ban

The main thrust of the editorial is that Congress should ban certain types of particularly deadly weapons, "like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California," defined in a clear way.

Surveys have found a majority Americans support these measures: 58 percent favor a ban on semiautomatic weapons, 55 percent with a ban on assault-style weapons, and 53 percent agree that high-capacity ammunition clips should not be available, according to the Pew Research Center.

But this probably wouldn't solve America's gun violence problem. The US has 4 percent of the world's population and nearly half of its civilian-owned guns.

Substantially reducing firearm deaths, as other nations have done, would require something much more extreme, and much more politically unpopular, as my colleague Dylan Matthews has written: a large-scale gun confiscation or buyback program. Although the Times editorial talks about "drastically" reducing the number of guns in the US, none of the policies it's proposing go that far.

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