President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have spoken little about gun control in their campaigns for the White House and showed no sign of shifting course after one of the deadliest shootings in recent U.S. history.
“It’s not one of the issues that either candidate has shown much inclination to discuss,” Don Kettl, dean of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland, said. “There are more downside risks than upside gains in talking about it.”
At least 12 people were killed and 59 were injured when a gunman in a gas mask opened fire early yesterday in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, according to a federal official who asked for anonymity. A suspect, James Holmes, 24, was taken into custody after the 12:30 a.m. attack in the Denver suburb.
Speaking yesterday in Fort Myers, Florida, Obama made no mention of gun control as he called for a moment of silence for the victims. The president canceled later campaign events, returned to Washington and ordered U.S. flags flown at half-staff at federal facilities. Romney, who as Massachusetts governor in 2004 signed legislation banning assault-style weapons, also sidestepped the gun issue in a speech in Bow, New Hampshire, calling the killings a “hateful act.”
Obama called on Americans to choose compassion over conflict following a January 2011 shooting rampage in Arizona that killed six, including a 9-year-old girl, and critically wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who later stepped down from her House seat. He didn’t push for any additional gun measures in the wake of that shooting.
Democrats became cautious about pushing gun control measures after Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 presidential election, which many in the party blamed in part on the issue. The then-head of the Democratic Party, Terry McAuliffe, encouraged candidates to avoid the gun issue because of its “devastating impact on elections.”
Gun-control advocates have expressed disappointment in Obama’s administration and said they hope he will be more aggressive on the issue should he win re-election. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday called on Obama and Romney to tell Americans “specifically what are they going to do about guns?”
“Soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country,” Bloomberg said in an interview on WOR Radio.
In an interview taped for broadcast tomorrow on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Bloomberg said it’s time for Romney and Obama “to be called, held accountable,” according to excerpts released by the network.
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“The president believes that we need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights of Americans, while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get them,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday. “There has been progress in that regard in terms of improving the volume and quality of information in background checks.”
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said in a statement that the campaign planned to pull all ads in Colorado, a battleground state, “until further notice.” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Obama’s re-election campaign, told reporters it temporarily won’t run ads in Colorado that contrast the president with Romney.
In an April speech, Romney said he didn’t want to see any new gun laws.
“We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners,” the presumptive Republican nominee said in an April 13 speech to a National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis.
“We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those who seek to protect their homes and their families,” he said. “President Obama has not; I will.”
The legislation Romney signed into law in 2004 was passed by Massachusetts lawmakers to ban assault-style semiautomatic weapons as a federal prohibition was about to expire. Congress hasn’t renewed that ban.
When he sought the Republican nomination before the 2008 election Romney defended that law, saying it also “provided for a relaxation of licensing requirements for gun owners in Massachusetts.” He told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Dec. 16, 2007, that he favored laws to “keep weapons of unusual lethality from being on the street.”
During that appearance, Romney said he also favored a background check for prospective gun purchases “to make sure that the crazies don’t buy guns.”
During his NRA speech this year, Romney suggested defeating Obama would help ensure the U.S. Supreme Court would continue to protect gun rights under the Constitution’s Second Amendment.
“In his first term, we’ve seen this president try to browbeat the Supreme Court,” Romney said. “In a second term, he would remake it. Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama court, not just for four years, but for the next 40. And we must not let that happen.”
The NRA represents a key constituency for Republicans, who are more likely to have guns in their homes than Democrats, 55 percent to 40 percent, according to a Gallup poll taken in October. The survey showed 47 percent of American adults have a firearm at home.
The NRA has approximately 4 million members, according to Stephanie Samford, a spokeswoman. Many are located in such election swing states as Florida and Ohio.
Kettl said the gun issue is “trickier” for Obama than Romney because “he is more likely to have a hard time appealing to working-class voters” who are more likely to own guns.
“He has to tiptoe that very fine line between expressing outrage” and not “derailing the themes he wants to get across,” Kettl said.
During his failed bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Romney also discussed his hunting habits.
“I’m not a big-game hunter,” he said in 2007. “I’ve made it very clear, I’ve always been a, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter, all right? Small, small varmints, if you will. And I began when I was, oh, 15 or so, and have hunted those kinds of varmints since then -- more than two times. I also hunted quail in Georgia, so I’ve -- it’s not really big-game hunting, if you will, however. It’s not deer and large animals. But I’ve hunted a number of times of various types of small rodents.”
Saul said in April that Romney owns two shotguns.
Romney supported the so-called Brady Bill of 1993 that required licensed gun dealers to perform criminal background checks on buyers. He also backed a ban on certain assault weapons in a 1994 federal anti-crime bill.
As Massachusetts governor from 2003-2007, he also signed legislation that raised gun license fees from $25 to $100 to help close a state budget deficit, while also extending license durations to mitigate the increased cost, according to a Boston Globe report.
Romney, in his remarks yesterday, said “there will be justice for those responsible” for the Colorado shootings. “That’s another matter for another day. Today is a moment to grieve.”