The Obama-Romney 'Assault Weapons' Duel

The Century 16 movie theater at which 24-year-old James Holmes allegedly went on a shooting rampage during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo. Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gun control, “assault weapons,” and the Second Amendment all surfaced in the lively second presidential debate. Unfortunately for devotees of the firearm issue, fireworks were also exploding on Libya, immigration, energy, “binders of women,” and the size of the candidates’ respective retirement plans.

Let’s go back and take a look at the gun exchange, because, like the rest of the debate, it was pretty darned interesting. A town hall attendee named Nina Gonzalez got things rolling with an admirably concise question. (You can find the complete transcript, courtesy of Politico, here.)

“President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals,” Gonzalez asked. “What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?”

The simplest answer would have been, “Nothing.” Or perhaps, “Nothing beyond enforcing existing criminal and civil laws as I found them when I took office.” Obama has signed no new federal gun control legislation of any significance, much to the despair of a gun-control movement that has been politically marginalized over the past dozen years. (I’ve addressed that marginalization and its causes here and here.)

Obama did not give the simplest answer. Instead he began this way:

“We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.”

This is the same answer that Mitt Romney could have offered. For that matter, it is the same answer that Wayne LaPierre, the top gun at the National Rifle Association, might have volunteered. It’s an indisputable statement about the deep-seated American attachment to firearms. It does not say anything about AK-47s in the hands of criminals. What it does reveal is Obama’s determination to steer clear of the gun issue at all costs. He and most other Democrats in Washington long ago decided that popular support for gun ownership and the political acumen of the NRA make this issue a loser. In an era of declining gun homicide rates, there simply is no widespread demand among voters for stiffened federal gun control. This reality is unaffected by the periodic and horrific mass shootings in movie theaters or shopping malls.

Obama continued his answer with an irrelevant anecdote about meeting one of the survivors of the July, 2012, multiplex massacre in Aurora, Colo. Then he said this:

“I also share your belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong on our streets. And so what I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally. Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence. Because frankly, in my hometown of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence and they’re not using AK-47s. They’re using cheap handguns.”

The president thus made a vague commitment to think about, maybe, one day, talking about a renewed assault weapons ban. If I were a gun control activist, I would not hold my breath. In a second Obama administration, the White House might say that an assault weapons ban would be nice in theory. Obama’s tepid remark, however, did not sound like a promise that he’d make it a priority.

As an aside: Any assault weapons “ban” that could pass Congress, even a Democratic-controlled Congress, would not be worth the paper it would be printed on. We had such a law from 1994 through 2004, when it expired by its own terms. It was so riddled with loopholes that it had no discernible effect on crime rates. In fact, its main legacy is that it made semiautomatic military-style rifles more popular among gun fans who love to buy whatever liberals try to restrict.

Back to the debate. It’s worth noting Obama’s point that AK-47s are rarely used in ordinary crime. Most criminals prefer cheap, easily concealable handguns. In a country with a Second Amendment interpreted by the Supreme Court to protect an individual right to own firearms, the key to crime control is deterring potential criminals from carrying and using their guns. Over the past two decades that has actually happened in New York, Chicago, and most other big cities. As I discussed here, the gun-killing rate in the United States has fallen 51.5 percent since 1993 and within that figure, 11 percent from 2008 to 2010, the most recent year for which comparable statistics are available. Frustratingly, criminologists have not reached a consensus on why this has happened. But no one has been able to make a simple, causal connection between gun control and the downward trend.

And what did Romney have to say about gun control? ”I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on—on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal. We, of course, don’t want to have automatic weapons, and that’s already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons. What I believe is, we have to do, as the president mentioned towards the end of his remarks there, which is to make enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have, and to change the culture of violence that we have.”

Romney opposes all new gun control. He endorses the existing severe restrictions on “automatic weapons,” which refers to machine guns that spray bullets as long as the trigger is depressed. “Assault weapons,” as used in the American political vernacular, refers to semiautomatic rifles, which fire one round for each pull of the trigger. So saying automatic weapons are illegal seems entirely beside the point.

Moderator Candy Crowley then asked Romney a good question: “You signed an assault weapons ban when you were [governor] in Massachusetts. Obviously … you no longer do support that. Why is that, given the kind of violence that we see sometimes with these mass killings? Why is it that you have changed your mind?

Romney temporized about how the Massachusetts gun-control law had bipartisan support. This was very similar to how he tries to square his enactment of health-care reform in Massachusetts with his current opposition to the national Obamacare health reform law, which was based on Romneycare. Obama had an opening, and he took it:

“I think Governor Romney was for an assault weapons ban before he was against it. And he said that the reason he changed his mind was, in part, because he was seeking the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. So that’s on the record.”

Upshot: No new national gun control is on the horizon. And Obama had a better debate than Romney.

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