Colorado shooting: Why calling Obama 'anti-gun' is smart politics

The gun lobby's bid to preempt new gun-control measures appears to be working. Even in the wake of Colorado massacre, Obama – dubbed by the NRA 'the most anti-gun president in history' – is defending gun rights.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama pauses as he speaks about the Aurora, Colo., shooting at a campaign event at the Harborside Event Center in Ft. Myers, Fla. on July 20.

Following last week’s massacre at a movie theater in Colorado, President Obama has offered words of healing and condolence, including a trip to the state Sunday to meet with families and survivors. Never in any of the president’s or his administration's public statements has there been a suggestion that he would use the incident to advocate for tougher guns laws.

In fact, to the dismay of gun-control supporters, Team Obama has gone out of its way to affirm the president’s support of gun rights since the Colorado tragedy. When asked Sunday whether Mr. Obama might propose new policies affecting access to guns, White House press secretary Jay Carney sounded more like a spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA) than for a Democratic president.

“He believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons,” Mr. Carney told reporters on Air Force One en route to Colorado.

But gun-rights advocates are undeterred. At the NRA’s special website, there is a message the 4-million-member NRA has been promoting since before Obama took office: “Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history.” 

The evidence all comes from his record pre-presidency, including a statement chiding then-President George W. Bush for not pushing to renew a ban on assault weapons and another opposing the carrying of concealed weapons.  

During the 2008 campaign, there was perhaps no greater gaffe by Obama than his secretly recorded comment at a San Francisco fundraiser in which he said that people in small-town Pennsylvania, wracked by job losses, “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.”

Now the argument by gun-rights advocates is this: If Obama is reelected, he will have no more elections to worry about, and then he will show his true colors on guns. This was the message promoted by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at the Conservative Political Action Conference last February.

“All that first-term lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment in his second term,” Mr. LaPierre said to thunderous applause.

In political terms, the timing of the Colorado massacre could hardly have been worse for Obama, says Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.

“It’s not in his interest for more and more people, particularly undecided voters, to get nervous about the gun issue,” Mr. Feldman says.

If the election is close, he says, particularly in key battleground states such as Ohio and Virginia, where gun rights are important, heightened concern about what Obama might do about guns during a second term could decide the outcome. In addition to the mass shooting July 20 in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12 moviegoers, Feldman cites three other areas that work against Obama in November among gun owners:

  • Fast and Furious. The NRA has alleged that the Obama administration intentionally allowed firearms to flow into Mexico as part of a gun-walking program in order to create more mayhem on the US border – and thus build support for an anti-gun agenda. When Congress voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt last month for refusing to hand over documents about the operation, the NRA counted lawmakers' votes in its scorecard.
  • The UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The draft treaty seeks control over international trade in conventional  weapons. Aimed at impeding terrorists, the proposed treaty has alarmed gun owners and conservatives in general, leery that the treaty will impede US citizens’ right to own firearms. The July 27 deadline for UN approval puts Obama in a tough position. The Obama administration says it will not allow the treaty to restrict Americans’ individual gun rights, and the NRA has put the administration on notice that there must be no compromise on the issue.
  • Nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Both of Obama’s picks serve as reminders to gun-rights advocates that the high court is the ultimate arbiter on the constitutionality of gun restrictions. Justice Sotomayor joined the dissent in the court’s 2010 landmark ruling McDonald v. Chicago, which overturned a ban on possession of handguns. Justice Kagan has yet to rule in a gun case, but gun supporters believe she would not defend their interests. The next president is expected to nominate at least one new justice.

In the end, Obama can’t win. Dan Gross, the head of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, expresses frustration with the president’s “lack of leadership” on the issue. But it’s the vast gun lobby that has the political clout. And so Obama is expected to toe the line on gun rights all the way to Election Day.

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