Barack Obama once said it was a "scandal" that then-President George W. Bush didn't force renewal of a federal assault weapons ban. Now it's Obama himself who's steering clear of that and other politically sensitive gun-control measures, even while calling for a new discussion on weapons and "how we can keep America safe for all our people."
The president asked for the new conversation on gun safety in an opinion column in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' hometown paper, the Arizona Daily Star, over the weekend. He proposed strengthening and enforcing existing laws requiring gun sellers to perform background checks.
But to the disappointment of gun-control advocates, the president didn't mention the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 _ when Congress failed to renew it _ even though it barred sales of high-capacity magazines like the one used by Giffords' shooter, and even though Obama was once an outspoken supporter of the ban.
Nor did the president take the opportunity to endorse legislation backed by many Democrats on Capitol Hill after Giffords' shooting that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines but not assault weapons themselves. That bill could be more politically palatable in Congress.
Obama's silence on the issue is a change from earlier in his career. During a debate while running for Senate in 2004, he said: "I think it's a scandal that this president did not force a renewal of this assault weapons ban."
Since becoming president, Obama hasn't sought to force a return of the ban either. In fact he appears to have mentioned it publicly only once, in response to a reporter's question during a 2009 trip to Mexico. At the time the president said he continued to support the ban but "none of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy. And so, what we've focused on is how we can improve our enforcement of existing laws."
Obama's stance on that and other gun issues brought him straight "F's" in a report card by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after his first year in office.
The campaign's president, Paul Helmke, said he was encouraged by Obama's op-ed article, which he said contained the strongest words on gun control from the White House in over a decade. But he said he was "a little surprised" that Obama didn't mention the assault weapons ban. He added, "An op-ed alone's not going to do it, and we're hoping the president is going to show some leadership on this."
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., author of the bill banning ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds, said she was pleased to see Obama talking about gun control but wished he would have said something about blocking access to high-capacity clips. "There are a lot of things I would have liked to have heard from the president, but to me this is a start," she said.
Obama's careful treading on the issue is an acknowledgement of political reality in Washington, where the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups hold huge sway. Many Democrats believe that passage of a crime bill including an assault weapons ban in 1994 contributed to heavy Democratic election losses that year. Obama appears to be attempting to craft a measured stance on the issue that won't anger the independent voters he will need to be re-elected in 2012.
"I know that every time we try to talk about guns, it can reinforce stark divides," the president wrote in his opinion piece. "People shout at one another, which makes it impossible to listen. We mire ourselves in stalemate, which makes it impossible to get to where we need to go as a country."
"However, I believe that if common sense prevails, we can get beyond wedge issues and stale political debates to find a sensible, intelligent way to make the United States of America a safer, stronger place."
The National Rifle Association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, said that instead of the conversation Obama is proposing on gun control, there should be "a dialogue about bad people and madmen and how to get them off the street so innocent people can be safe. That's what the dialogue needs to be about."
The White House declined to offer a timeline for any measures to strengthen the background check system, which is hobbled by spotty reporting from states, among other problems. And Obama made no mention in his op-ed of closing a loophole that allows private dealers to sell guns at gun shows without conducting background checks. As a candidate for president Obama supported closing that gap in regulations, but White House spokesman Reid Cherlin declined Monday to say whether the president still held that position.
The White House said that beginning Tuesday the Justice Department will hold a series of meetings with law enforcement officials, mayors, advocates, gun-rights supporters and others to try to come up with some new policy proposals or ideas on gun safety.
"The Department of Justice is continuing this process by meeting with stakeholders on all sides of the issue, to look at ways that we can find common ground to take some commonsense measures that respect American Second Amendment rights but also deal in a commonsense way with American safety and security," presidential press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. The NRA was invited but a spokesman said the group has no plans to attend.
Carney declined to say whether Obama supported McCarthy's legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition clips.