The White House has made it clear that that was no accident: Obama doesn’t intend to use this moment to bring gun control back into the national debate. “The President is focussed on doing the things that we can do that protect Second Amendment rights, which he thinks is important, but also to make it harder for individuals who should not, under existing law, have weapons to obtain them,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters during the flight to Aurora.
None of this is likely to sway the National Rifle Association. Throughout Obama’s Presidency, even as he’s done nothing to make firearms less freely available, the N.R.A. has maintained that he is coming for America’s guns. In fact, leaders of the organization now argue that the fact that Obama hasn’t pursued gun control during his first term in office is proof that he plans to do so if he’s reëlected. In a piece published last year, Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s executive vice-president, wrote:
Over the past three years, the Obama administration and its anti-gun allies have been engaged in a silent but sophisticated long-term conspiracy to:
1. Neutralize gun owners and NRA voters as a political force in national elections, and thereby:
2. Win re-election to a second term in the White House, where they then will be immune to the will of voters and free to continue consolidating and misusing their ever-increasing power to:
3. Prosecute a full-scale, sustained, all-out campaign to excise the Second Amendment from our Bill of Rights through legislation, litigation, regulation, executive orders, judicial fiat, international treaties—in short, all the levers of power of all three branches of government.
(Emphasis in original.)
Secret plans aside, Obama might not actually be the gun-control candidate in this year’s Presidential race. Though both men have changed their stances at times, given the needs of their campaigns and the mood of the country, when you compare their records in office—call it Massachusetts Mitt vs. Actual Obama—the truth is clear.
“In their time in office, I would say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that Romney did more,” says Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign, the pro-gun-control group named for former White House press secretary Jim Brady. “However, Romney has certainly gone further out of his way to pander to the gun lobby during the election.”
When he was the governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a ban on assault weapons, like the one used in the movie theatre in Aurora. “Deadly assault weapons have no place in Massachusetts,” he said at the time. “These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.” Romney also signed a law that raised the state’s gun-licensing fee to a hundred dollars, from twenty-five.
By contrast, as Gross notes, the legislation relating to gun control that Obama has signed while President has loosened restrictions—one bill he approved allows concealed weapons in national parks, another made it legal to bring guns in checked baggage on Amtrak.
Admittedly, Obama has in the past supported fairly tough regulations on firearms. But he did that in the years before the Democratic Party concluded that gun control was a political loser and abandoned it. During the 2008 campaign, he supported renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, but that’s a relatively mainstream position, and he hasn’t taken any action to get the ban through Congress. (In a conversation with reporters on Tuesday, Carney confirmed that Obama still favors bringing back the ban.)
The N.R.A. might not trust Obama’s evolution on this issue, but there’s no real reason they should be any more convinced by Romney’s, especially when they see things like the interview he gave to CNBC’s Larry Kudlow on Monday. Asked about his record as governor, Romney’s response was the kind of vague, nonsensical dodge he relies on in such situations:
Well, actually the law that we signed in Massachusetts was a combination of efforts both on the part of those that were for additional gun rights and those that opposed gun rights, and they came together and made some changes that provided, I think, a better environment for both, and that’s why both sides came to celebrate the signing of the bill. Where there are opportunities for people of reasonable minds to come together and find common ground, that’s the kind of legislation I like. The idea of one party jamming through something over the objection of the other tends to divide the nation, not make us a more safe and prosperous place. So if there’s common ground, why I’m always willing to have that kind of a conversation.
But he has made an effort to woo the N.R.A., which has been closer to Republicans than Democrats anyway. Dan Gross, of the Brady Campaign, offers another reason for the N.R.A.’s support of Romney, and its fervent opposition to Obama: “They need a villain; they need to raise money,” he says. “With the extent to which Romney has pandered to them, I think they have more confidence that he will do their bidding—or at least not work against them, relative to Obama.”
The N.R.A. declined a request for an interview for this story. In an e-mail, Andrew Arulanandam, the group’s director of public affairs, said, “It is time for families to grieve and for the community to heal. There will be an appropriate time for political discussions down the road.”
Photograph by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images.