Obama and Hill Dems Frustrate Allies in Gun Debate

Todays second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting massacre, the upcoming tenth anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School shootings, and President Barack Obamas trip to MexicoABC News Photo Illustration
Today's second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting massacre, the upcoming tenth anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School shootings, and President Barack Obama's trip to Mexico

Back when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate, he stood before nearly 40 million Americans and fired what many gun control advocates thought was a clear warning shot.

"Don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals," he exclaimed in his widely viewed acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last August.

But President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have been less than full throated in their commitment to pursuing stricter gun regulation measures including a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban.

In fact, President Obama suggested today that he does not think reauthorizing the assault weapons ban is politically viable at this time. "None of us are under any illusion that reinstating that ban would be easy," Mr. Obama said at a joint press conference with Mexican President Calderon in Mexico City.

President Obama also took pains to reassert his belief that the assault weapons ban "made sense" when it was in place and argued he wasn't "steering away from it," but clearly placed the focus of his guns agenda on stricter enforcement of the laws already on the books and a hope to build consensus in Congress on an effort to more widely share gun tracing information with local law enforcement agencies.

This week's second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting massacre, the upcoming tenth anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School shootings, and President Obama's trip to Mexico this week -- where President Calderone is expected to once again push for the reauthorization of the U.S. assault weapons ban -- have all converged, placing the politically perilous issue of guns back in the spotlight.

In addition, a spate of shootings including the high profile tragedies in Pittsburgh and Binghamton, N.Y., have focused the nation's attention on gun violence.

But don't expect President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress to do much more than try to train that spotlight elsewhere. The relative silence you hear on the issue from the White House and Democratic leaders on the Hill is in stark contrast to 1993, when the party successfully passed and President Clinton signed into law the Brady gun bill, which instituted five-day waiting periods, and the 1994 federal assault weapons ban which expired in 2004.

The muted advocacy from the elected officials they consider allies in the political warfare over guns has been disheartening for gun control advocates.

"Our hope certainly was that once the White House got under the control of President Obama, they would be talking about the issue and taking some leadership on the issue," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "It's frustrating that there hasn't been a response from the White House," he added.

Helmke suggests the Obama team and congressional leaders are misreading the lessons of the 1994 midterm elections, when Democrats lost control of Congress just two years into Clinton's first term.

"My sense is that they are very cautious and they are saying to themselves 'We don't want to repeat whatever happened in 1993/1994 and lose control after two years,'" said Helmke.

Recent polls may help explain that caution. A CNN poll earlier this month found just 39 percent of Americans said gun laws should be made "more strict," down from 50 percent in 2007. Last fall, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46 percent of those politically crucial self-identified independents said they supported stricter gun control. Considering numbers like that, combined with the fact that four in ten Americans have a gun at home, you can begin to see why Obama and many leading Democrats are keeping the debate at arm's length.

Obama to Make Assault Weapon Ban Permanent?

The White House Web site states that President Obama wants to make the assault weapons ban permanent, and Democrats in Congress are not entirely giving up on the effort even if they are kicking that effort down the road a bit.

"I wouldn't bring it up now," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview that aired Sunday night. "I'll pick the time and the place, no question about it."

It is the second half of that statement that helps prevent the National Rifle Association's political arm from declaring victory. "I think that there are still some who wish to push their gun control agenda," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "I think they are just lurking and waiting."

"Gun bans are non-starters with gun owners. The simple fact is that the only universe of people who will be affected by gun bans are law abiding people. Criminals are not going to miraculously follow that law," he added.

Gun control advocates certainly realize they have more supportive White House occupants now than they have had for the last eight years. Helmke of the Brady Campaign still points to candidate Obama's specific mention of assault weapons in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention as a beacon of hope for his group's work.

"The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals," Obama said in Denver last August.

So it is all the more disappointing for those advocates to hear the far more noncommittal rhetoric coming out of the White House this week.

When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked on Tuesday how Obama might respond to the Mexican request for action on reauthorizing the ban on assault weapons, his answer suggested that request is not likely at the top of the president's to-do list.

"The president believes that there -- through enforcement of the existing laws that we have that we can make a dent in -- a significant dent in any gun violence," said Gibbs. "There's a lot on our plate," he added.

As long as Obama and the Democrats in power see the issue as a political loser, the push for stricter gun control is unlikely to have much muscle behind it.