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Little Election-Year Incentive For Obama Or Romney To Join Gun Debate

President Obama at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo., on Sunday, when he met with  victims and family members of last week's shooting.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo., on Sunday, when he met with victims and family members of last week's shooting.

As occurs after seemingly every mass killing that involves firearms, the shootings in a suburban Denver movie theater last week have renewed calls for tougher gun control laws.

Just as predictably, those calls have led to pushback by gun-rights advocates who accuse those calling for stricter legislation of trying to exploit the tragedy to restrict Americans' Second Amendment rights.

Worth noting is that neither of the two major-party candidates running for the White House has engaged in any current gun control debate.

Why that should be is no mystery. For both President Obama, the Democratic standard-bearer, and Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican presidential nominee, there's little upside less than four months before Election Day to doing so.

Robert J. Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York, Cortland, has written extensively on the nexus of gun control and politics as well as the American presidency. He explained in an interview with It's All Politics:

"First of all, the Democrats for several years have been backing away from the gun issue. There are always a few exceptions, [Rep.] Carolyn McCarthy [D-N.Y.], people like that. And even though in his background Obama supported stronger gun laws when he was in the Senate and in the state House in Illinois, he clearly made a decision comparable to his political party to sidestep the gun issue. He even signed into law two pro-gun measures — one to allow people to carry guns in national parks and another to allow guns onto Amtrak trains.

"Even so, he's demonized by the NRA and the gun lobby because, a) they need a demon, they need somebody to focus their anger on to rally their base and b) because, obviously, his prior political career did include a pro gun-control position. So they've gone after him that way.

"At this point in the campaign, he has no interest in advancing the gun issue because he wants to keep the focus on his issues and on Mitt Romney's suitability for the presidency. Everything else is a distraction.

"Mitt Romney, for his part, has no desire to address the gun issue as a policy matter, first because he wants to portray himself as a moderate; it's a general-election campaign.

"Secondly, the NRA is deeply entrenched in the Republican Party. It's part of the Republican core base, and while it would make them happy for them to talk about gun rights, even the gun-rights organizations hunker down in the aftermath of a tragedy. You will not get any lengthy statements about the right of people to carry guns in the days after a mass shooting like this. They basically express sympathy and clam up. And that's their usual strategy.

"So there's nothing for Romney to gain by trumpeting the gun issue now. ... And even though the NRA and other gun-rights people might prefer somebody else, he's the Republican Party's nominee, and the Republican Party is very much in the thrall of the NRA. Again, he wants to talk about the economy, understandably enough, and the issues that the Romney campaign has laid out that they see as their approach to defeating Obama."

In an interview on CNBC Monday, Romney reaffirmed his support of the Second Amendment, de rigueur for any serious presidential candidate in the U.S., but eschewed going much further:

"I also believe that with emotions so high right now, this is really not the time to talk about the politics associated with what happened in Aurora. This is really a time, I think, for people to reach out to others in their community that need help or a comforting hand. Let's do that for now and then we can get on to policy down the road."

Romney did say, however, that he didn't think new gun laws would make a difference.

To greater or lesser degrees, politicians may be taking their cues from public opinion, which certainly doesn't appear to be moving in the direction of tightening restrictions on gun ownership. With one exception — assault weapons like that used by alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes.

In an April 2012 Pew Research Center poll, for instance, 49 percent of respondents said the "right to own guns" was more important than "controlling ownership," the latter position held by 45 percent of those surveyed. In December 1993, 34 percent said the right of gun ownership was more important, while 57 percent rated gun control higher.

But a Time poll from June 2011 indicated that 62 percent of respondents approved of a ban on assault rifles, compared with 35 percent who said gun owners' rights trumped such a ban.

Even so, efforts to reinstate the Clinton-era assault weapons ban ever since its sunset in 2004 have failed in part because Democrats as a party during the 2000s moved to downplay gun control as they sought in 2006 to gain control of the House by winning seats in traditionally more conservative congressional districts, Spitzer said. They succeeded only to lose many of those seats four years later.

In any event, political scientists observe that there are long-term shifts in U.S. demographics and culture that could lead to changes in the gun-rights versus gun control debate in coming decades.

Patrick Egan, a New York University political scientist, noted in a post on The Monkey Cage blog that both violence and gun ownership have trended downward in recent decades.

Spitzer expanded on the idea.

"Fewer and fewer Americans use guns, own guns, care about guns. So the core base of Americans who serve as the core constituency for groups like the NRA is gradually shrinking. And that's been true since the early 1960s.

"In the early early 1960s, about half of all American homes had at least one gun. Today it's less than a third of American homes. And for a variety of demographic and other reasons, again, fewer and fewer people people are using guns.

"It's a tradition that typically is passed down through families, mostly from father to son, and that's happening less and less.

"So in the years and decades to come, the picture for the gun-rights community isn't so promising. However, they have certainly found a way to advance their agenda and influence the political process despite that demographic trend. And I wouldn't underestimate their ability to kind of keep their agenda in play in the years or even decades to come."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.