President Obama offered his boldest statements to date on gun control on Sunday evening in Newtown, Conn. Always a supporter, never a doer on this particular topic, Obama has the freedom now to push a little bit harder on an issue that evenly divides the country.
“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement to mental-health professionals to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” Obama said Sunday.
This is far cry from his comments after shootings in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 and Aurora, Colo., this summer, when he called for people to lead better lives, show more civility in public discourse, and reflect on how we can prevent senseless violence. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better, to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and co-workers and parents,” Obama said in Tucson last year.
Any move to curb citizens’ gun-buying will be an uphill battle that probably will end with little change in the law. Still, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday is giving gun-control advocates in Congress and the White House slightly more leeway to talk about it. And that’s a big difference from the previous four years. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence begged lawmakers on Friday to abandon their traditional "thoughts and prayers" comments from past tragedies. "If the pattern holds, they will immediately retreat into silence and refuse to engage in any meaningful debate about America’s catastrophically flawed gun laws," the group's statement said.
It remains to be seen whether this type of conversation will move public opinion. The nation is as divided on gun rights as it is about political parties—roughly 50-50. A poll released on Sunday from The Huffington Post and YouGov found half of Americans saying they support stricter gun laws, while 43 percent saying the laws should remain the same or become less strict. That division is similar to one demonstrated in July in polling from the Pew Research Center after the shooting an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. In the Pew survey, 47 percent of polled individuals said it was more important to control gun ownership than protect gun rights. Pew also found that the attitudes on gun control changed very little in the wake of massacres such as the one in Aurora or the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in Tucson in 2011.
Obama has not been active on gun control, and the White House’s bully pulpit can make a big difference in how the public views the issue. He supports reviving the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, but his administration has done little to push it or even talk about it. His priorities in his first term were health care and the financial crisis, with barely a nod to gun violence.
Now, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has vowed to push for the assault-weapons ban next year. She has some powerful allies in the fight, including Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill. But there are serious barriers to passage, even in her own Democratic party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D. have all received campaign donations from the National Rifle Association, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Top Republican leaders in Congress are also recipients of the NRA’s campaign largess, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The NRA has been strangely silent since the Friday shootings. The group's Facebook page is hidden, and there have been no tweets on its Twitter account since before the incident. A spokesman has not returned requests for comment.
The silence is appropriate considering the gut-wrenching awfulness of Friday’s crime. But when it comes to legislation, the NRA, as a leader in the gun-rights lobby, will no doubt fight long and hard to keep the assault weapons ban from being reinstated. Gun-rights advocates see any attempt to limit the purchase of weapons or ban certain types as an initial step toward banning all weapons outright.
“The so-called ‘assault-weapons’ issue is their attempt to demonize a broad class of commonly owned firearms and condition the public for more sweeping gun bans,” wrote NRA executive director Chris Cox in a December 2011 op-ed.
As one Twitter follower said on Friday in reference to National Journal’s coverage, “guns aren’t the problem … crazy people are the problem.”