Colorado shooting highlights barriers to tough gun control: Obama and Romney

Early in their political careers, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney advocated tougher gun laws. But as President, Obama has been largely silent on the issue, and Romney has embraced gun rights.

Erik Schelzig/AP
A National Rifle Association billboard in Hendersonville, Tenn., attacking Tennessee House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart. The gun rights group has had a falling out with Republican lawmakers in Tennessee over a bill seeking to guarantee workers the right to store their guns in their cars while at work.

There are two major reasons why the Colorado theater shooting rampage won’t bring greater restrictions on the nation’s extraordinary arsenal. They’re both running for president: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Over the years, both men have moved from left to right – liberal to conservative – on controlling guns in the United States.

In Obama’s case, he has stifled any earlier tendency to speak out on things like restricting the sale of assault rifles in the US. For Romney, it’s been a steady march into the embrace of the all-powerful National Rifle Association since the time when he ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in Massachusetts and declared, “I don't line up with the NRA.”

They’re both politicians, and they both can read public opinion polls. The trend there among voting Americans has been in the same direction.

Gun nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture

For a while after the Columbine High School mass shooting in Littleton, Colo. in 1999, that seemed not to be the case. “Given a choice between protecting the rights of gun owners and controlling gun ownership, two-thirds of Americans now favor restrictions on ownership of fire arms,” the Pew Research Center reported at the time.

But that didn’t last long, and now Gallup and other polling organizations find steadily growing opposition to stricter gun control. Since 2001, for example, support for a ban on the manufacture, sale, or possession of assault rifles has dropped from 59-43 percent, according to Gallup, while opposition to such a ban has climbed from 39-53 percent.

As a western state with an established gun culture, Colorado reflects this attitude.

Police report that the weapons possessed by alleged theater shooter James Holmes – a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, and two .40 caliber Glock handguns – all had been recently and legally purchased from local gun dealers.

Like most states, Colorado law makes it difficult to deny the granting of permits allowing gun owners to carry them in a concealed fashion.

One reason? The relative political clout of advocacy groups.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest and oldest of America's gun-control groups, is a fraction of its peak size, Reuters reports. The center and an affiliated political arm had revenues of $5.9 million in 2010, the most recent year for which information is publicly available – down 27 percent in three years.

In the same year, the NRA and its various components took in $253 million from individuals, gun makers and sellers, and other supporters.

The Associated Press has put together a very useful timeline of Obama’s and Romney’s evolution on gun control.

As a state senator in Illinois, Obama supported banning all forms of semiautomatic weapons and limiting handgun purchases to one per month. In the US Senate, he voted against protecting firearms makers and dealers from lawsuits over misuse of their products by others. Running for president in 2008, Obama called for a return to the federal ban on assault weapons, which began during the Clinton administration but had expired under George Bush.

Since then, he has been largely silent on the issue.
 
After the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that nearly took the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama seemed to raise the issue of guns and their easy access, calling for "a new discussion of how we can keep America safe for all our people."

But he’s failed to follow up, critics say.

"The president called for a national dialogue on the gun issue," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, told the Huffington Post, "but has not asserted his voice or leadership in that dialogue."

Romney has moved even farther toward gun rights, according to the AP tally.

Running unsuccessfully against US Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he supported a ban on assault weapons. Running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he vowed to protect the state's "tough gun laws." After he’d won that election, he signed a ban on assault weapons.

But then, preparing his first run for the presidency in 2006, he became a “lifetime member” of the NRA. (“Lifetime” in this case starting well into middle age.)

Speaking at the NRA’s national convention earlier this year, he said: “We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners. President Obama has not. I will."

Will the movie theater rampage that killed 12 people and wounded 58 in Aurora, Colo., the other night make a difference in any of this? It seems unlikely.

"There are strong forces in American politics, led by the National Rifle Association, that have prevented any real changes in gun control laws in years," Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Texas, told Reuters. "In the short term, this incident will give some liberal Democrats an opportunity to talk about gun control in an environment where people are listening, but in the long term it doesn't change anything.”

 Gun nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.