Both candidates steer clear of gun discussion

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have called for tougher enforcement of current gun laws, but that wouldn't have helped Zina Haughton.

The 42-year-old mother of two was murdered in Brookfield, Wis., on Sunday by her estranged husband, Radcliffe Haughton, with a firearm he was barred from owning but bought easily just one day earlier from a seller who broke no laws.

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The tragedy has shed new light on the gaping holes in the criminal background check system that aims to keep dangerous people from obtaining weapons, and launched a new push from gun reformers for policymakers to plug those gaps.

But — as evidence of both the power of the nation's gun lobby and the increasingly radioactive nature of Second Amendment politics — both Obama and Romney have steered well clear of the discussion.

The silence hasn't been lost on advocates, who are all but blaming inaction in Washington for the Brookfield tragedy — just the latest in a long string of deadly shooting rampages that include an assassination attempt on an Arizona congresswoman and the largest shooting spree in the nation's history in a Colorado movie theater.

"How can any elected official say that the broken background check system works? How can they look in the eyes of the families — the victims’ families — and tell them this system doesn’t need to be fixed?" New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who heads Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), said this week.

"They can’t."

The Brookfield tragedy unfolded Sunday morning when Radcliffe Haughton entered the Milwaukee-area spa where his wife worked and opened fire. He killed three women, including Zina, and injured four others before fatally shooting himself.

The rampage came just days after Zina had obtained a four-year restraining order against her husband — a move that made it illegal, under federal law, for him to buy or possess firearms.

Licensed gun dealers, who are required to screen potential buyers through an FBI database — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — might have discovered that Haughton was barred from owning guns. But private, unlicensed sellers are not required to perform those checks in most states. Indeed, Haughton was able to go to a website, Armslist.com, and buy a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun from a private seller who broke no laws when the weapon exchanged hands.

Bloomberg and other gun reformers are pushing legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales, regardless of whether they come from licensed dealers or private sellers.

Pushing back has been the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation's largest gun lobby, which supports the NICS checks for licensed dealers but opposes that mandate for unlicensed vendors.

There's also not much appetite among the presidential candidates to push such a bill.

Obama ran his 2008 campaign on a platform of expanding background checks to unlicensed gun sellers — a notion known as closing the gun-show loophole. But he hasn't stuck his neck out for that change since reaching the White House, and he's been careful throughout this election cycle to downplay his support for gun reforms and instead emphasize a more comprehensive — and less controversial — non-violence strategy that focuses on education, community outreach and enforcement of existing laws.

"We have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill," Obama said during the Oct. 17 debate. "We’ve done a much better job in terms of background checks, but we’ve got more to do when it comes to enforcement."

The White House did not respond Thursday to questions about Obama's current position on the gun-show loophole.

Although Romney, as a Massachusetts Senate candidate, backed the Brady gun law that created the NICS system — and now supports the notion of beefing up screenings for licensed dealers — he opposes any new gun restrictions, including efforts to expand the background checks to unlicensed sellers.

"I’m not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns and taking guns away or making certain guns illegal," he said during that debate.

Romney called instead for "enormous efforts to enforce the gun laws that we have" and the promotion of non-violence through "good schools" and "the benefit of having two parents in the home."

Romney's campaign did not respond this week to questions about the Brookfield shooting and why he believes background checks are appropriate for some gun sellers but not others. The office of his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R), referred questions to the campaign, which did not respond to similar questions.

With an estimated 40 percent of annual domestic gun sales coming from private sellers, however, gun reformers argue that existing law — even if it's better enforced — makes it far too easy for violent people to get their hands on guns.

"Allowing 40 percent of firearm purchasers to bypass background checks is just as irrational as it would be if we allowed 40 percent of airline passengers to bypass airport security," James Johnson, Baltimore County police chief and head of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, said this week.

Politically, the president's caution mirrors the hesitance of many Democratic leaders, who have been wary of bucking the NRA since the party was swept out of the House majority in 1994 — a bruising loss some observers have linked to gun reforms the Democrats championed earlier that year.

Indeed, the only major gun reform law enacted since then — a 2008 law designed to improve NICS reporting in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre — passed only with the NRA's stamp of approval.

There's some evidence that the NRA is at odds with many of its members when it comes to gun restrictions.

A poll conducted in July for Mayors Against Illegal Guns by LuntzGlobal, a consulting firm led by GOP strategist Frank Luntz, found that 74 percent of NRA members support criminal background checks for all gun sales — a figure that rises to 87 percent for non-NRA gun owners.

The NRA did not respond this week to questions about the Brookfield shooting and why background checks are important for licensed dealers but not unlicensed sellers.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who represents Brookfield, said this week that he believes in "reasonable extensions" to the current background check system "in order to keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons and the mentally ill." But those changes, he emphasized, should be made carefully and only after current law is "effectively enforced."

"The current background check process can certainly be improved — primarily by improving the accuracy of the records it uses, to ensure that gun sales to dangerous people are blocked," Sensenbrenner said Thursday in an email. "However, imposing blanket new requirements on all unlicensed private sellers, who were specifically not included in the Brady bill because these individuals are not engaged in the business of dealing firearms, could lead to qualified, law-abiding Americans being delayed or denied their right to buy firearms."

Still, any gun reform laws would have trouble moving through Congress without a push from whatever administration wins the White House in November. And the absence of such a push from the two candidates has been so pronounced that even "Saturday Night Live" is spoofing it.

Asked during last weekend's "SNL" debate skit what the candidates would do to keep assault rifles off the streets, Romney, played by Jason Sudeikis, says, "Nothing."

"I would also do nothing," echoes Jay Pharoah's Obama.

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