Gun control: Why Obama played it safe in remarks on violence in cities

In a speech Wednesday to the National Urban League, President Obama made his first extended remarks on gun violence since the Colorado shooting spree that killed 12.  Both the president and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have played it safe in their comments on gun control.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama addresses the National Urban League convention at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Wednesday, July 25.

Six days after the shooting spree in Colorado that killed 12 people, President Obama made his first extended remarks on gun violence.

Speaking Wednesday night to a gathering of the National Urban League in New Orleans, Mr. Obama extended his focus beyond the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and into the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, where guns take the lives of young people daily.

In a bow to political reality, Obama didn’t call for any new laws. Instead, he highlighted measures already taken that don’t require legislation, such as background checks for the purchase of firearms that are now “more thorough.” What he didn’t say was that the background check on the alleged Aurora shooter, James Holmes, turned up nothing to deny him his weapons. All of his firearms were obtained legally.

As has become customary for Obama in statements on gun violence, he made a bow to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and the “cherished national heritage” of which hunting and shooting are a part.  

But, he said, “I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals.”

Since becoming president, Obama has been walking a fine line on guns. Even as he calls for better enforcement of existing laws, and mourns the victims of gun violence, he has also expanded gun rights. In 2009, for example, he signed legislation that allows the carrying of concealed weapons in national parks and another bill that allows people to carry guns in their checked bags on Amtrak trains.

The unspoken presence in all the president’s actions and statements is the gun lobby and its most powerful player, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency, has also been playing it safe in his public statements on Aurora, as a former Massachusetts governor who used to support gun control.

In an NBC interview Wednesday in London, Mr. Romney said more restrictive gun laws likely would not have prevented last week’s tragedy.  

"Political implications, legal implications are something which will be sorted out down the road," Romney told NBC's Brian Williams. "But I don't happen to believe that America needs new gun laws. A lot of what this young man did was clearly against the law. But the fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening."

Romney suggested that it would take changing hearts to prevent similar attacks in the future.

“We can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won't,” he said. “Changing the heart of the American people may well be what's essential, to improve the lots of the American people."

Both presidential candidates’ caution on guns frustrates big-city mayors, who formed the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006. After the Aurora massacre, the group’s leading voice, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, called on both Obama and Romney to move beyond “soothing words” and propose concrete actions to prevent future mass shootings.  

On July 24, the mayors group put out a survey of NRA rank-and-file members by GOP pollster Frank Luntz that found strong support for certain gun-control measures, including criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun. NRA members also strongly support allowing states to set eligibility requirements for people wanting to carry a concealed weapon in public. The group’s suggestion was that the NRA leadership is more hard-line than NRA members.

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