After a gunman killed 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., in July, gun control supporters hoped the slayings would spur the presidential candidates to talk seriously about reducing gun violence, which is on pace to kill 48,000 Americans over the next four years.
It hasn’t worked out that way. President Obama and Mitt Romney rarely mention guns on the campaign trail. And when they were pressed by an audience member at Tuesday night’s debate, both candidates’ vague answers dismayed advocates.
“I am glad that a concerned citizen asked about guns, but, sadly, there were no real answers,” said Stephen Barton, a survivor of the Aurora shooting from Southbury, Conn., in a statement to the media. “We are going to keep demanding a specific plan from both candidates to end gun violence.”
The candidates’ responses illustrated that the powerful gun lobby has made politicians fearful of advocating more limitations on firearms, said John Rosenthal, director of the Newton-based nonprofit Stop Handgun Violence. Rosenthal said he would have liked to see the candidates call for closing the gun-show loophole that allows weapons purchases in many states without background checks.
“The NRA has bought and controls the Republican Party in Congress,” Rosenthal said. “And they have intimidated the Democrats into submission. President Obama’s answer reflected that reality.”
The exchange began after Obama was asked by audience member Nina Gonzalez what his administration has done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons such as semiautomatic AK-47s.
In his response, Obama said he favored reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. He said the same thing in the last campaign but made little effort to follow through when Democrats controlled Congress. Obama also said he wanted to do a better job keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, without specifying what that would involve. He added that he wanted “a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally,” such as better schools.
In his answer, Romney said he was against imposing any new gun legislation and segued into a conversation about the importance of two-parent families. “We can make changes in the way our culture works to help bring people away from violence,” he said.
The efforts by the candidates to change the subject irked gun control advocates, especially Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, who has emerged as one of the leading funders of candidates who support gun control. He caustically criticized the presidential candidates in a press conference.
“They had all this gibberish, talking about education, that education is the solution to stop the killing,” he said, according to Capital New York. “My recollection is that the Aurora theater shooter, he was a PhD candidate, OK? And Virginia Tech, the massacre was committed by a student at a first-class university. The solution is to prevent all people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them.”
Assault weapons gained renewed prominence after the alleged Colorado shooter, James Holmes, was found to have purchased a semiautomatic weapon, a gun that would have been banned under the expired assault weapons law.
Tom Nolan, a former Boston police officer and criminologist at Boston University, said that while assault weapons have rarely been used in crime in Boston, they have been used in several mass shootings, and that many shooters had , acquired them lawfully.
“Any kind of restrictive legislation is going to save lives,” Nolan said. “A theater shooting, if it occurred at all, it wouldn’t be as devastating.”
The debate also brought up Romney’s own convoluted history on gun control. As a US Senate candidate in 1994, Romney supported the federal assault weapons ban, and as governor of Massachusetts he signed legislation making the state’s ban permanent.
When moderator Candy Crowley asked Romney why he signed the state law but now opposes the federal ban, Romney said the difference was that both pro- and antigun control forces compromised to extend the ban. “I was able to do that in my state and bring these two together,” he said.
Rosenthal, who participated in the crafting of the bill, said Romney had exaggerated his role.
“I can tell you that I had never talked to Governor Romney about guns until the day of the signing,” Rosenthal said. “He never participated in the drafting, the debate. In fact, no one knew whether he would even sign the bill.”
The Gun Owners’ Action League, the affiliate of the NRA in Massachusetts, has said in the past that the bill actually represented a victory for gun owners because it also extended the term of firearms licenses from four years to six years and set up a board to restore licenses to people who have been convicted of minor crimes under certain circumstances.