There are some issues Democratic Presidents can't seem to win, and gun control is one of them. As a legislator, Barack Obama backed tighter gun laws; as a presidential candidate, he pledged restraint. "I'm not going to take away your guns," he said at a Pennsylvania glass factory in September 2008. He hasn't. Last year the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, citing "extraordinary silence and passivity," graded Obama an F on gun control.
During his tenure, the President has also expanded gun rights by signing laws that allow the possession of firearms in national parks and on Amtrak. And yet, he can't get a nod from the National Rifle Association because those measures were tucked into broader bills Obama liked. "He has a failing record when it comes to gun rights, and that's what our members and gun owners and hunters across the country know," says NRA public-affairs director Andrew Arulanandam. "I also think they don't trust him."
If Obama has disappointed both sides so far, the tragedy in Tucson provides a possible pivot point. Senior White House aides have said the President will address the gun issue sometime soon, though they've declined to offer specifics on the timing and format. Equally unclear is what Obama wants to say or what he thinks political considerations will permit him to. Riled by Obama's decision to duck the issue in his State of the Union address, gun-control advocates are urging aggression. "The President should stand up [on guns]," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "It's one of the issues he can build a legacy on."
Two years of silence suggest Obama feels hemmed in by the zeal of the gun lobby, whose aversion to any Second Amendment limitations are widely thought to have backfired on Bill Clinton and Al Gore. On one side of the equation, it makes sense to draw on his growing store of political capital now, before the grisly scene outside the Tucson Safeway fades from public memory. On the other hand, the President may be skittish about taking a polarizing stand on guns as he's tacking to the center on a host of other domestic policy matters.
Gun-control advocates say the President has an array of options available to reduce the U.S.'s dizzying levels of gun violence without putting himself on political quicksand. "One of the best things he could do is to endorse the legislation that's already out there," says Paul Helmke, the Brady Campaign's president.
Democrats in the House and Senate have brought bills to ban high-capacity magazines like the 33-bullet clip Jared Loughner allegedly used in the Tucson rampage. Introduced by New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, the House measure would outlaw the sale of clips containing more than 10 rounds. "This is not going to interfere with anybody going hunting. It's not going to interfere with home defense. These are bogus fears," says McCarthy, who first ran for Congress in 1996 after her husband was killed and her son wounded by a man who opened fire on a Long Island commuter train.
Curbs on high-capacity magazines were part of the assault-weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004, which White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has said Obama supports reinstating. A recent ABC News poll found that 57% of Americans favor barring high-capacity clips like Loughner's. But McCarthy's Republican colleagues don't appear to be among them. Her dozens of co-sponsors are all Democrats, and the gun lobby opposes the measure. "Existing laws are adequate," says the NRA's Arulanandam. "They just need to be enforced."
In fact, in 2009 a bipartisan group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns crafted a blueprint outlining 40 ways the executive branch can stanch the flow of violence simply by shoring up enforcement. The group's suggestions fall into a few broad categories, including improving background checks; closing so-called gun-show loopholes, in which buyers are constrained by fewer regulations; better sales-reporting requirements, particularly for the types of guns frequently used in cross-border trafficking; promoting better cooperation and data-sharing among agencies; and vesting more power in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has been without a permanent director since 2006. Obama nominated Chicago director Andrew Traver in November, but he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Some of the solutions are common sense, says John Feinblatt, an adviser to Bloomberg, like changing ATF regulations so that a dealer whose license is stripped for breaking the law is no longer permitted to keep and sell his remaining inventory without background checks for the buyers. "This isn't about gun control. These are crime-control measures," he says, calling the systems in place "a bit like Swiss cheese."
Even modest changes will be met with criticism. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, gun-control advocates spent $57,900 during the 2008 election, while the gun-rights lobby shelled out $2.4 million, or 41 times more. More importantly, says Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, they have cultivated a committed corps of "single-issue voters" people who reliably trek to the polls to cast a ballot for the candidate who will go to the mat for their right to bear arms. "We have not been able, to the degree we need, to develop a single-issue public-safety vote," Everitt says. "That is our challenge."
The gun lobby has also held a hard line, essentially by arguing that to yield any ground would invite tyranny. "The NRA has, in effect, perpetrated two myths," says Helmke. "One is to Republicans, and it's that the Second Amendment says you can't have any restrictions on guns." In 2008's D.C. v. Heller, the biggest gun-rights ruling in centuries, Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion noted that the right to bear arms does not entail "a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for any purpose." The NRA's ability to scrub this caveat, Helmke says, feeds a second myth, the one nagging at leery Democrats, "that this is a political third rail they need to stay away from."
Polls bear that out. Not all gun-control advocates are latte-sipping liberals with an antipathy to the Second Amendment (Helmke, for one, is the former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind.), and few NRA members match caricatures of the hair-trigger survivalist. According to a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 69% of NRA members and 85% of gun owners support background checks at gun shows. A separate poll showed that about 90% of gun owners support plugging gaps in federal databases, enforcing existing requirements for stocking those databases and forcing agencies to swap that information.
Which is why gun-control advocates are hoping a cautious President may be ready to join their coalition. "I think it's important that he puts his leadership in front of it. He has the bully pulpit," McCarthy says of Obama. One thing's for sure: silence on the topic hasn't won him many fans so far.