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Politics

On guns, Obama and Romney hard to pin down

Presidential candidates seen as conflicted

An assault rifle was among weapons police say James Holmes used in the Colorado attack.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

An assault rifle was among weapons police say James Holmes used in the Colorado attack.

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed a state law banning assault weapons and hiked gun license fees by 300 percent. During his US Senate run in 1994, Romney endorsed a federal assault weapons ban and also backed the Brady Bill, which required background checks on people who purchase guns from federally licensed dealers.

In the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama supported outlawing all semiautomatic weapons — including the type of pistol wielded by Wade Michael Page when he shot dead six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday. As an early-term president, Obama said he would work to renew the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

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Today, Romney opposes the ban, and Obama has stopped pushing for it, even after accused gunman James Holmes allegedly used a legally purchased, military-style assault rifle to kill a dozen people and wound 58 others in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last month.

There is disagreement about whether a new assault weapons ban would be constitutional, in light of a 2008 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed an individual’s right to own a gun for personal use, unconnected to the “well regulated militia” referred to in the Second Amendment.

Legal analysts at IllinoisCarry, a gun-rights group in the president’s home state, believe that “with the ruling, it would be unconstitutional to ban a whole genre of firearms,” according to Valinda Rowe, a spokeswoman for IllinoisCarry.

But Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, pointed to comments made a week after the Aurora shooting by Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the case. Scalia said the extent of gun ownership rights “will have to be decided in future cases.”

“He clearly left the door open for the Second Amendment to be regulated,” Gross said.

As they vie for the White House, both presidential candidates appear more friendly toward Second Amendment advocates than at any other point in their political careers.

But longtime observers of the candidates say that if the gun policy records of Romney and Obama appear similar, their true feelings are not.

They describe Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, as personally disengaged but politically strategic when it comes to gun issues.

“What’s very clear to me is that he takes expedient positions,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral, who publicly urged Romney to push for renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, after he signed the state ban in 2004. “His overriding sentiment on gun control is one of indifference.”

Obama, meanwhile, “has always been antigun,” according to Rowe. Obama’s recent silence on the assault weapons ban is not the product of philosophical malleability, Rowe believes.

“He’s just biding his time,” she said.

As a presidential candidate, Romney has been mocked for occasionally overstating his progun credentials, such as when in 2007 he told a New Hampshire man wearing a National Rifle Association hat, “I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.”

Romney later admitted he had been hunting only twice in his life: once when he hunted rabbits with his cousins in Idaho at age 15 and once when he shot quail on a 2006 outing in Georgia with major donors to the Republican Governors Association.

But if Romney is not as passionate about the right to bear arms as he suggests, he was never an advocate for gun control, even when he backed the federal assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill in 1994, said John Lakian, Romney’s Republican primary opponent that year.

“It was not a front-burner issue at all,” Lakian recalled.

Though Romney’s name is often linked to the Massachusetts ban on assault weapons, he “never lifted a finger during the debate,” according to John Rosenthal, director of the Newton-based nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence, which was a leading advocate of the ban.

Romney’s presidential campaign declined to characterize his involvement in framing the bill but said he has been a consistent supporter of Second Amendment rights.

In the same year that Romney signed the assault weapons ban in Massachusetts, Obama — a state senator at the time — voted against an Illinois self-defense law.

The Hale DeMar Act was named for a Wilmette, Ill., man who shot and wounded a home invader. It was a clear case of self defense, but DeMar faced criminal charges — later dropped — because he should not have possessed the gun in the first place; Wilmette had a local ordinance banning handguns.

Obama voted with the minority against a bill that protected people like DeMar from being charged.

Gun-control proponents and opponents alike say the vote is just one piece of evidence that proves Obama’s belief in stricter gun laws is genuine. But they say he shelved gun control before a difficult midterm election for Democrats, in 2010, and has kept it there as he seeks a second term.

In the days after the shooting in Aurora, White House spokesman Jay Carney reaffirmed the president’s support of a federal ban on assault weapons but indicated he would not push for one in the near future. Monday, responding to the Wisconsin shootings, Obama said the nation needs to “examine additional ways” to stem gun violence.

“Obviously, we would have liked to see him pass’’ the assault weapons ban, said Mark J. Walsh, director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.

“I wouldn’t call the president a wuss, but there is some political calculation that goes into finding the best time to do that,” Walsh said.

Gross is not so forgiving.

“It’s disappointing to see how little leadership he’s shown,” Gross said. “It’s not appropriate to be handing out passes on something this important.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.

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