By Mike Lillis - 07/26/12 05:18 PM EDT
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) waded very carefully into the gun reform debate Thursday, saying she backs President Obama’s vows to fight gun violence without calling for tougher laws.
Obama on Wednesday addressed the gun reform issue for the first time since Friday's shooting rampage in a Colorado movie theater killed 12 and injured another 58. But the president was very cautious not to push for any specific legislation, which many lawmakers increasingly see as a liability in the face of blanket opposition from the powerful gun lobby.
“I support what the president said yesterday,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. “I thought his comments were very thoughtful [and] provided leadership when he said we need to build a national consensus to reduce violence in our country.”
She's not the only Democratic leader bucking calls from some in the party to move swiftly to install tougher gun laws in the wake of the Colorado massacre.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a strong gun-rights supporter, dismissed the idea that the Senate would consider gun control legislation — or take the lead on that issue — anytime soon.
“With the schedule we have, we’re not going to get into a debate on gun control,” Reid told reporters. "But I'm very happy, I'm glad the president made this statement, because it's something that needs to be done. But we're not going to address gun control."
Friday's fatal shootings relaunched the debate over the effectiveness of the nation's gun laws.
White House spokesman Jay Carney gave the first indication of Obama’s response, saying the president would not push for new reforms, but would instead fight gun violence within the confines of current law.
Carney’s remarks gave GOP leaders an opening to lean on Obama’s position to justify their own opposition to new gun reforms, which is entrenched and longstanding. Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did just that.
“The White House has made clear that they are not going to use this horrific event to push for legislation,” Boehner said Tuesday, “and I agree.”
Obama on Wednesday expanded on the issue, hinting strongly that he supports tougher laws, but being careful not to endorse any.
“I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms,” he told an audience gathered in New Orleans for the National Urban League convention.
“But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals,” he added. “I believe the majority of gun owners would agree that we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons; that we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller.”
The comments leave much to interpretation. Obama's reference to AK-47s, for instance, suggests a return of the assault weapons ban he campaigned on in 2008 — or it could mean he just wants tougher screenings, under current law, to keep such weapons from the hands of violent people. And his push to check criminal records of potential buyers flirts with an endorsement of legislation requiring unlicensed gun sellers to perform such screenings — or it could be an indication he simply wants tougher screenings by licensed dealers, who are already required to do them.
Carney clarified the remarks Thursday, saying the solution will rely on action from a broad range of players, from teachers and parents to state and local governments. "Tackling the problem of violence is not just about gun laws," he said. "[It's] not enough to debate the role of government."
Still, the vagueness of Obama's comments has allowed congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to continue pointing to the White House as the lead in their continued opposition to new gun reforms.
Reid, for instance, said Thursday that he didn’t see how anyone could disagree with Obama’s comments.
And Boehner, asked if he still agrees with Obama's position on assault rifles, replied, “AK-47s are not allowed to be in the hands of criminals.
“That is the law,” Boehner said. “What’s appropriate at this point is to look at all the laws that we already have on the books and make sure that they’re working as they were intended to work, and are being enforced the way they were intended to be enforced. That’d be the most logical step forward at this point.
“If the president has proposals on other ways that we can address criminals owning guns,” Boehner added, “I’ll be happy to look at them.”
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of liberal Democrats is calling on specific reforms in the wake of the tragedy, including proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, like the 100-round clip allegedly used by the suspect in the Colorado shooting.
Several House Democratic leaders — including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) — have endorsed such reforms in recent days. But Pelosi on Thursday declined to join them.
"We need some answers about what happened in Colorado,” she said.
Bernie Becker, Russell Berman and Amie Parnes contributed to this story.